A History of Obie Trice

by Dustin

obie trice

There existed a point in time where Obie Trice was a highly anticipated figure in rap. The first solo act signed to Shady Records, his “real name, no gimmicks” tagline served as the perfect balance to the alias-focused early incarnations of Eminem and D12. Trading cartoonish violence and shock humor for street experience and cheeky dry wit, he felt familiar but different enough for fans to invest interest in the rising star. Perhaps it should be expected, but this partnership with Shady seems to be the single small snapshot of Obie’s career that lingers in hip-hop’s memory. Reality is, though, that the man has been involved in the scene for over two decades (and counting). A labour of love which would be launched while simultaneously trying to escape the grips of a drug-dealing lifestyle, Obie should be viewed as a true warrior of the craft rather than the poster child for the rise and fall nature of mainstream music; moreover, if one follows his life a little more closely, it becomes evident that he was an artist able to reach people regardless of what level of fame he was currently sustaining.

And like so many others, it all started during the greatest boom in the history of Detroit’s underground.

Though he would go on to state that he had only been taking rap seriously for about five years prior to his Shady Records deal, Obie Trice’s interest in being a rapper stemmed back to his childhood. Initially rapping on a karaoke machine during his early youth, he would eventually transition to making sporadic appearances at Detroit’s legendary Hip-Hop Shop as a teenager in the early 90s. As the rap scene in Michigan began to take off near the end of the millennium, so too would Obie’s involvement in the game. By 1999 he had started to make his first true push in the industry, releasing “The Well-Known Asshole/Gimme My Dat Back” as a vinyl single through No Airplay Entertainment. Riding a bit of buzz, thanks in part to local DJs buying into what the the young talent had to offer, he and No Airplay Entertainment struck gold again in 2001 with the release of “Mr. Trice/Respect.” Detroit had finally become properly conscious of Obie Trice; moreover, local radio stations were keeping these singles in regular rotation, helping him reach a far wider audience than before.

One notable member of Obie Trice’s ever-growing following was D12’s resident weirdo, Bizarre. In display of a shockingly well-groomed ear for potential, Bizarre was an early proponent of Obie’s music. Allegedly, Bizarre heard one of the rapper’s very first singles and absolutely lost his mind at the quality. He promptly had his management get him in contact with Obie Trice, and they became friends nearly instantly. Though it took quite a bit of time, Bizarre would eventually put Eminem and Paul Rosenberg onto “The Well Known Asshole.” They loved it, and eventually invited Obie to come and audition to the world’s largest emcee. He jumped at the opportunity but assumed little was likely to come of it as Eminem had seemed passive in the extremely casual meeting. He thanked Bizarre for having his back and headed home, prepared to maintain on the independent grind if needed.

A few weeks later, his manager gave him the shocking call that Shady Records was considering tendering him a record deal. After bonding with Eminem at a Kid Rock party (which he had been personally invited to by the Shady Records co-founder), he would be added to the label’s roster in 2001, barely two years after his debut vinyl singles.

Though they’ve become a bit of a joke for poor talent management in recent years, Obie Trice would be the benefactor of a flawless slow burn build to hype on the still young Shady Records. A wonderful debut freestyle skit on D12’s Devil’s Night album would be his only real output on the label during his first calendar year as a signee. A taste of what was to come, but little more than that. Throughout 2002, however, Eminem and company would begin a monstrous career push for the man with no gimmicks. Obie was all over everything the label was doing that year. He was promo’d at the beginning of Eminem’s first single from The Eminem Show – an album that also saw him featured on “Drips” – as well as given multiple spots on the original soundtrack for 8 Mile. By the time the summer of 2003 rolled around, fans’ patience would be rewarded. Obie’s debut-album cycle would be kicked off on August 12th, 2003, with the release of the comedic “Got Some Teeth.” Just over a month later, Cheers hit the shelves. The long awaited debut of Detroit’s hidden gem had finally arrived.

No expense was spared on Cheers, as the album was absolutely loaded to the brim with star power. Eminem alone contributed five vocal features and served as executive producer for the release; additionally, Dr. Dre, Nate Dogg, 50 Cent, Lloyd Banks, Timbaland, D12, and Busta Rhymes all made notable appearances. Unsurprisingly, the album performed very well commercially, landing itself in the five spot on the Billboard 200 and eventually being certified platinum by the RIAA a little later. It was well deserved too. Obie held his own, even when faced with performing alongside future legends of the industry. His style was loose and confident, a perfect reflection of the battle born Detroit hip-hop scene. It was also clear that he had seized the opportunity to learn from the experienced individuals around him, presenting his up-and-coming hunger with the finesse of a much more established hip-hop performer. The transition from independent hood artist to being an integral part of rap’s favourite powerhouse was nearly flawless.

Mainstream success is fleeting, however. A fact that Obie Trice would learn painfully in the coming years.

In the period post-Cheers, things started to unravel slightly at Shady Records. Eminem’s mounting drug dependency issues saw the emcee’s brainchild slowly lose its dominance over the rap industry. This was catalyzed in 2006 by the tragic and untimely murder of D12’s Proof. An associate and best friend to basically the entire label, his passing ushered in a terribly dark era for Shady 1.0. In spite of mourning this loss of kin and recovering from being shot in the head himself, Obie Trice did actually manage to put together a solid sophomore effort with Second Rounds on Me. The album was darker, grittier, and more violent than its predecessor, a clear reflection of his mindset at the time; however, it failed to achieve the same level of commercial success that Cheers had enjoyed three years prior. It debuted at eight on the Billboard 200, moving 74,000 units in the first week. Though rap album sales had taken a nosedive that year, the lack of performance was surprising. In the midst of this relative flop, Obie unfortunately also found himself firmly in the doghouse of Interscope head Jimmy Iovine. He would later admit some person fault for this falling out due to his attitude at the time, but not before it ultimately led to him parting ways with Interscope and Shady. Unable to reach a resolution with Iovine, Obie Trice walked away from his major record deal in 2008. He stayed on good terms with his mentor and label mates, but his time as a mainstream presence in rap had come to a relatively quick end.

To his credit, Obie never gave up on the rap game. Though he took a handful of years off, he would resurface in 2012 to relative underground success with his self-made Black Market Entertainment brand. He was no indie darling, but Bottoms Up sold over five thousand first week copies, charted on the Billboard 200, and was generally received quite positively by fans. His follow up, The Hangover, a few years later would be more polarizing, yet it still had a respectable first week sales of over four thousand. These numbers may have been small compared to his time on a major label, but for an entirely independent artist they were actually nothing to laugh at. Obie Trice’s post-Shady legacy is, however, most well defined by his actions outside of his own music. Starting in the early 2010s, he began meeting with the Detroit local government to discuss helping high-risk youth get invested into the arts. A commendable cause for a city in regular turmoil, to be certain.

Obie Trice never seemed destined to be the defining face of any record label, but it is a bit of a shame that he has become largely forgotten. He may have been behind Eminem, 50 Cent, and D12 when it came to general fan interest, but he gave the roster a sense of depth and legitimacy that it simply has not had since his departure. With Obie, Shady Records had four acts delivering genuinely enjoyable albums which were also major commercial successes. They were a force in hip-hop, and for a short period of time, they sat at the peak of the genre. He often gets miscast as nothing more than someone who sold due to affiliation with Eminem, which isn’t entirely the case. He undoubtedly benefited from his boss being the largest thing on the planet, but there was more to Obie Trice as a rapper than that. He was witty, charismatic, funny, and knew when to reel it back and be serious. He understood his strengths and weaknesses, and made up for his limitations by projecting his infectious personality unabashedly. It is a fact that his prominence has dried up and his musical output has declined, but Obie should be looked back on as a superb entertainer. His time in the sun was a brief, but very enjoyable, piece of hip-hop’s illustrious history.

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A History of UTFO and the Roxanne Wars

by Dustin

UTFO

The 1980s were an interesting decade for hip-hop as a genre that had just begun to find its footing. The classic artists of this era are often remembered for one of two things: infectiously bouncy party music, or gritty socially rooted rap. Yet, aside from the big names – N.W.A, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Run D.M.C., The Beastie Boys, and a few others – rap from this particular point in history seems have found itself overshadowed by the behemoth that is 90s rap. Yet, if one is up to doing a little digging, there are a ton of very interesting artists to be discovered. One such group was Untouchable Force Organization, or as they were more commonly called, UTFO. An east coast rap group that brought a unique flavor to the sounds of the 80s.

UTFO formed in Brooklyn, New York in 1984 when two of Whodini’s regular break-dancers, Doctor Ice and Kangol Kid, made the decision to pursue a music career of their own. The two enlisted the talents of The Educated Rapper and Mixmaster Ice to round out a quartet. Thanks to the group’s pre-existing connections to the music industry it didn’t take them long to find a label to call home. In this case, it was Fred Munao’s Select Records that decided to take a chance with the group. The slightly more experienced R&B outfit Full Force was brought into the fold to assist the newer UTFO, tasked with overseeing the production of their debut studio album. Full Force took this job to heart, and sought the help of sampling and sound design expert Gary Pozner to assist with the instrumental portion of the record. Armed with some of the best in the industry, UTFO was primed to make a splash in hip-hop with their self-titled debut album. Which, is exactly what they did; in fact, the group probably got a bigger response than they bargained for.

Their freshman release is regarded by many hip-hop enthusiasts as a slept on classic, with its unique beats and flows for the era; however, UTFO as an album is still mainly known for setting off a massive string of diss tracks known as the Roxanne Wars. During the promotional run of the album, a track tilted “Hanging Out” was released and performed relatively terribly in terms of pure numbers. The b-side of the single, however, would go on to receive huge amounts of airplay. This song was titled “Roxanne, Roxanne,” a comical track about a hypothetical girl who had ignored the advances of the various UTFO members. Around this same time, UTFO missed a scheduled performance, much to the dismay of venue promoters Marley Marl and Mr. Magic. A 14-year old Lolita Gooden (known by her stage name Roxanne Shante) heard the men discussing the problem, and offered to write a song to fire back at UTFO. Surprisingly they took her up on this offer, and Marley Marl opted to handle the track’s production.

The fruit of their labor would be released not long afterward. It borrowed the original beat from “Roxanne, Roxanne” and was named “Roxanne’s Revenge.” Local radio stations adored the song, thrusting it into instant hit territory with continuous airplay. UTFO and Full Force saw the humor in the situation, and promptly contacted Elease Jack to perform vocals on their own answer track, “The Real Roxanne.” On this song, Elease claimed to be the actual Roxanne originally dissed by UTFO, and took jabs at all four members. This sparked Roxanne fever in the New York hip-hop scene, and artists entirely unrelated to the original incident began releasing Roxanne songs. Topics ranged from claiming to be Roxanne, claiming to know Roxanne, or in one particularly outlandish case, claiming that Roxanne was a man all along. It was such a craze that close to a hundred Roxanne songs were estimated to have seen release in the span of a few years. Though this seems highly likely to be exaggeration, there is no doubt that UTFO made their biggest splash with “Roxanne, Roxanne” and the time period around their debut album.

Perhaps unexpectedly, this was basically where UTFO’s career peaked. The Educated Rapper wasn’t on the group’s sophomore effort, Skeezer Pleezer. And the album itself didn’t garner much attention, apart from the song “Split Personality.” Their next three albums would also fail to meet expectations even though the group experimented with other sounds such as rock, swingbeat and reggae. Ultimately, the hypersexual Bag It & Bone It released in 1991 served as the endpoint for UTFO. The four men parted ways on good terms, and stayed active within the music industry in more subdue roles. They knew when it was time to call it quits, and that never impacted the lifelong respect they had for each other. A true testament to this was in 2017, when all of UTFO were reportedly by Educated Rapper’s bedside as he lost his battle to cancer.

Though they faded out of rap in an unspectacular manner, UTFO’s legacy should probably be spoken about more than it is. As ridiculous as they may have been, the Roxanne Wars were one of the first instances of beef extending beyond a one off diss and response. Their influence on modern artists was also far greater than one would expect, as evidenced by the outpouring of respect and love over the internet following The Educated Rapper’s death. UTFO helped paved the way for individuals that didn’t fit perfectly with the sound of their time. In most respects they were absolute eccentric oddballs compared to their contemporaries, but the group’s genuity left a lasting impression on the hip-hop scene. In retrospect, the present day alternative artist may not have even existed without the lane UTFO began to carve. While they may appear to have been a one hit wonder on the surface, it goes much deeper than that. Doctor Ice, Kangol Kid, The Educated Rapper, and Mixmaster Ice were four of the most important, but least spoken about individuals in the support structure of hip-hop.

A History of Definitive Jux

by Dustin

DJX

The story of Definitive Jux really starts with Company Flow in the early nineties. The group – consisting of Bigg Jus, Mr. Len, and a very young El-P – was turning the heads of underground labels due to their heavy presence on the WKCR 89.9 radio in New York; however, the group still found it rather difficult to find a home initially. Loud Records opted to sign the now legendary Mobb Deep instead, and Tommy Boy Records didn’t believe the trio had what it takes to make it in the music industry. Despite the rejection, Company Flow pushed on and released the original Funcrusher extended play on the much smaller Official Recordings. During this time the group would also meet Amechi Uzoigwe – a video production assistant at the time – who would ultimately become their manager. The goal was simple: to keep on the independent grind until a record deal could be found on their own terms.

This would eventually happen when the group signed on to underground powerhouse Rawkus Records, and released Funcrusher Plus shortly thereafter in 1997. This album became one of the most influential underground releases of the 1990s, and spawned nearly two years of touring and promotion. Following this, Bigg Jus departed from Company Flow on good terms with the intention of pursuing a solo career. Not long after, the remaining group members’ relationship with Rawkus began to deteriorate rapidly. Feelings of financial mistrust and talent mismanagement soured Company Flow on the label, and El-P would ultimately make the decision to depart. These events effectively dissolved Company Flow. Aside from an instrumental release and a few loose tracks post-Jus, all members would remain active, but as solo artists.

Disillusioned with the music industry due to his experience at Rawkus Records, a disgruntled El-P went on to team up with manager Amechi in order to form a label named Def Jux in 1999. Ultimately, Def Jux sought to provide amenities such as covering the overhead on projects and offering 50% earnings on all record sale royalties to the original musician. Def Jux didn’t want to be shoehorned into any particular sound or facet of hip-hop, they wanted to grant artists the freedom to be genuine to themselves and release music that reflected such. They wanted to thrive with individuals who would normally be relegated to little more than open mic events and college radio stations. No mainstream expectations, no compromising, just raw hip-hop. A tall order, and a massive risk to be sure, but El-P and Amechi were driven by a burning desire to treat musicians with respect.

The label released Def Jux Presents in March of 2001 as a sampler of what they had to offer, but their first real success would come in May of the same year with Cannibal Ox’s El-P produced debut album, The Cold Vein. This record is still considered a seminal release to this day, and put Def Jux’s name on the map in the world of hip-hop. They would hit a second home run in September, when Aesop Rock dropped the critically lauded Labor Days. Def Jux would experience a slight hiccup that year in the wake of its initial success, however. Def Jam Recordings sued over the similarities in name. This was eventually settled out of court, and the label officially change to Definitive Jux to avoid any future legal issues. Despite this brief tie up in litigation, 2002 saw the release of El-P’s Fantastic Damage and Mr. Lif’s I Phantom, two records that were met with universal critical acclaim. The label had laid an extremely solid foundation, and was poised for nothing but growth and victory going forward.

Expansion, progression, and success certainly rung true for Definitive Jux through the middle portion of the new millennium, but not without a healthy dose of conflict leading to significant retooling. The relationship between the label and Cannibal Ox (specifically Vast Aire) crumbled, and the enigmatic duo would never release another record through El-P’s outfit. Holes in the Definitive Jux roster would gradually be filled with individuals such as Murs, C-Rayz Walz, and El-P’s longtime friend Camu Tao (of S.A. Smash and rap super collective The Weathermen). The label also signed fellow Weathermen member Cage after his nasty falling out with Eastern Conference owners The High & Mighty. Boasting a newly revitalized talent pool, in addition to retaining Aesop Rock, Mr. Lif, and a few others, Definitive Jux proceeded to go on another absolute tear of record drops. The standouts of which, just to name a few, include: The End of the Beginning, Black Dialogue, Since We Last Spoke, Hell’s Winter, Mo’ Mega, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, and None Shall Pass. The label had a firmly established cult following by this point. Renown for being different while also embodying the spirit of hip-hop. Though, the seemingly never ending success story proved shortly to be unsustainable.

As unfortunate as it is, the history of Definitive Jux is not one with much of a happy ending. Near the end of the 2000s things began to unravel rather quickly. The turning point was likely the passing of Camu Tao in 2008. A long time Definitive Jux member and best friend to many, his death shook the label to its core and created tension between certain artists. El-P had also allegedly become somewhat unhappy with the state and development of Definitive Jux. Feeling proud of all the label had accomplished, yet regretful that they had become too homogeneous in sound and created a bit of a splintered audience away from hip-hop itself. Definitive Jux, at times, seemed alienated from the rap community. Cited as being too weird or too niche, many turned their noses up at buying into their offerings. Being that El-P had come up in the east coast hip-hop scene, he began to feel a strange disconnect from his brainchild as if it no longer represented himself or its original ethos. After a run of uninspired releases and reissues (aside from Cage’s excellent 2009 album Depart From Me), El-P finally announced that he would be stepping down as creative director of Definitive Jux and placing the label on permanent hiatus in 2010; moreover, he stated the he would be moving on to focus on his career as a hip-hop artist.

This announcement also revealed that Camu Tao’s posthumous King of Hearts would fittingly be the final release prior to the label closing its doors. A collection of rough song ideas Camu wanted people to hear, touched up and arranged by El-P, King of Hearts released August 17th 2010 in conjunction with Fat Possum Records. Just like that, Definitive Jux’ reign over independent hip-hop had come to a close. A decision which, El-P would note years later, felt like the right one. The label had run its course and ended when it needed to before hurting its legacy. The remaining roster dispersed, with most finding homes on other independent record labels. Of the most notable, El-P moved on to release another solo album before forming Run the Jewels with Outkast affiliate Killer Mike, Aesop Rock would seek refuge on Rhymesayers Entertainment, Cage reconciled with Mighty Mi to rejoin Eastern Conference, and Mr. Lif eventually found his way to Mello Music Group.

Though it may have felt as if it ended just as soon as it started, Definitive Jux remains relevant even in the modern context of hip-hop through its influence. While labels like Bad Boy had attempted to glamorize the sound of New York hip-hop for the masses, Definitive Jux tried to keep it true to its roots while also developing an alternative lane for artists that is still flourishing today. El-P and Amechi also managed to revolutionize the status of independent hip-hop labels. Setting an example of how to break out of the mold set by the major corporations in music by placing the artist before the business whenever possible, while also operating sustainably. Though El-P may have some regret when reflecting back on the label, ultimately he did achieve his goal. What spawned out of frustration toward the music industry, would help set the bar higher for the treatment of underground acts in hip-hop. Between this influence and the amazing music released during its decade long run, it is hard to call Definitive Jux anything but a success in retrospect.

A History of Canadian Hip-Hop in the 1990s

by Dustin

Canada1

During what many would call the “golden era” of hip-hop in the United States, Canada’s hip-hop scene was just beginning to enter its development. Through the very late eighties and early nineties it was nearly impossible for Canadian hip-hop acts to gain exposure. Due to the lack of label support and general resistance, these artists had an incredibly difficult time getting their product placed in record stores; moreover, the fight for airtime on the radio was a losing battle. At the time there were no stations playing hip-hop music, and Milestone Radio’s application for an urban music station was ultimately turned down by the CRTC in favor of a country dedicated station.

This was particularly unfortunate as it would have been the first of its kind in Canada, and provided an exposure outlet for hip-hop artists. Canadians living close to the border could listen in on American urban broadcasts, but these stations rarely, if ever, played music from Canada.

Despite the overwhelming lack of support however, some artists did manage some success during this time period. Most notably Maestro Fresh-Wes (now known as Maestro) managed to enter the Billboard top 40 in the United States with his debut single “Let Your Backbone Slide” in 1989. In addition to this, one of Canada’s first female emcees, Michie Mee, landed a record deal with an American label. A feat which has been incredibly difficult just years early.

Others, such as Dream Warriors, Organized Rhyme, and Get Loose Crew had varying degrees of success in the nineties as well; however, Canadian hip-hop was still failing to garner respect and recognition with listeners. Domestic support for artists was still scarce, and to make matters worse international interest was practically non-existent. Those who attempted full moves into the American market, such as Maestro who moved to New York (and released Naaah, Dis Kid Can’t Be from Canada?!!) saw their careers hit an abrupt standstill.

Frustration was high for any hip-hop artist trying to make it in Canada. Domestic media didn’t seem to care, leaving many disgruntled.

The dissatisfaction with Canadian media would boil over at the infamous 1998 Juno Awards. A hip-hop group from Vancouver called the Rascalz, won best rap recording for the album Cash Crop. Much to their dismay, the award was briefly presented during a non-televised portion of the award ceremony, and they were told to give their acceptance speech in a press room backstage. Citing general frustration and a lack of respect for the genre, Red1 convinced the rest of the Racalz to protest the award.

Their decision was discussed at length by artists, journalists, and fans. The context of racial tensions, as well as the lack of exposure for Canadian artists put a spotlight on a genre that was often on the back-burner.

The Rascalz had support country wide for the protest, and ultimately it was successful. The following year the Juno Awards would move hip-hop to the main televised stage. Simultaneously, a new generation of Canadian hip-hop artists began to crop up. Kardinal Offishall, Saukrates and Choclair made their debut efforts in the mid to late nineties, and would cement themselves as mainstays in the genre. Even though commercial success was still relatively rare, hip-hop in Canada as a whole was beginning to grow.

Authors Note [March 17th, 2018]: This article was originally intended to be part of a series back in 2016. This series never happened; however, with the creation of our “Hip-Hop History” section of the site this article has seen a few edits and been moved into this category to better organize our articles.