We just wrote about Sufjan Stevens‘s new ode to Tonya Harding and, prior to that, created a post that features an animated gif of MC Hammer dancing that syncs up perfectly to an Aphex Twin track from Selected Ambeint Works 85-92. I think it’s pretty fair to say that we’ve unintentionally drifted off into some peculiar nineties portal for no real discernible reason. Now, I’m here to let you know that we have no desire of fight this course. In fact, we plan to embrace it and drift even further, with the only difference being that it isn’t unintentional anymore.
Four years ago, I found myself in a Facebook conversation which resulted in, friend and former co-worker, Gabriel Grieser offering to pen a track-by-track review of Vanilla Ice‘s 1990 major label debut, To The Extreme. Gabe wrote one other piece for the site when he reviewed the Beach Boys Smile Sessions in 2011, and within the first paragraph of that article it becomes pretty clear that, besides writing about the Beach Boys, analyzing pop music from 2 to 3 decades ago is a task that rests firmly within his wheelhouse. After posting the link to the MC Hammer/Aphex Twin post the other day, Grieser commented with, “I forgot all about my To The Extreme track-by-track.” He later followed up with, “By the way, if you would like a track-by-track of your favorite classic ABC, NKOTB, Hammer, MC Brains, Candyman, Snow, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, MC Skat Cat etc. record, as long as it’s on Apple Music I can make it happen.” The question wasn’t if I was interested, but simply which album interested me the most. As you should have been able to deduce by now, we went with Another Bad Creation‘s platinum selling 1991 effort, Coolin’ At The Playground Ya Know!, an album that reached number 7 on the Billboard 200 and #2 on the R&B charts.
For those who aren’t familiar, ABC was a New Jack Swing R&B / pop-rap group consisting of a crew of young kids from Atlanta, Georgia. They were discovered by Michael Bivins of Bell Biv DeVoe and New Edition fame and considered part of his “East Coast Family,” which included acts like BBD; Boys II Men; and MC Brains, who scored a hit with the song “Oochie Coochie.” The majority of Coolin’ At The Playground was written and/or produced by Dallas Austin, whose impressive list of credits include names like TLC, Pink, Madonna, Gwen Stefani, Duran Duran, Fishbone, Funkadelic, Terrence Trent Darby, Michael Jackson, and a slew of others.
It’s interesting to look back at the Vanilla Ice article now and see that it actually concluded with me mentioning the idea of asking Gabe to do more of these type of review pieces, by stating, “Perhaps, we could venture a look into the East Coast family and do a review of Johnny Gill‘s self-titled debut, or something like Coolin’ at the Playground Ya Know! by Another Bad Creation.” Although I’d completely forgotten that I ever wrote that, I’m happy to see that it’s finally come to fruition. Something else that had completely slipped my mind was how fast Gabe pumped out that Vanilla Ice piece, because I was just as surprised this time around when the ABC review arrived in a Facebook message within a matter of hours after I responded expressing my interest.
So… here it is. Everything beyond this point are the words and views of Gabriel Grieser, a man who has a very genuine and non-ironic passion for this sort of retro music-related pop subject matter. It’s something that I, for one, have an incredible appreciation of.
Another Bad Creation
Coolin’ At The Playground ya Know!
“Iesha” has the distinction of being the only song that ever inspired me to literally call up a radio DJ and ask “What song are you playing now?” It was 1991, I was nine years old, the jam was just THAT good, and the station was my favorite: Seattle‘s long-defunct soul station, 1250AM KKFX, aka “K-FOX.” I convinced my mother to take me to Tower Records on the Ave after school, and I bought the cassette, very excited that the group was about my age. Shortly afterward, this nerdy white boy from North Seattle was inspired to start a rap duo, ask for a drum machine for his birthday, and immediately start home recording. Now I’m a 36-year-old dad with a house and still haven’t given up on recording music in my basement. And to think it all started with this record of mostly second-rate Dallas Austin compositions performed by a group of Atlanta tween protégés of Michael Bivins that really isn’t all that great.
It’s hard to believe ABC‘s debut album would be kicked off, not with a catchy hit single like “Iesha” or even “Playground,” but with a two-minute “sound collage atop New Jack Swing music bed” of what is probably supposed to be parents talking to other parents or teachers about their “wild,” “aggressive” kids. A couple minutes pass and nothing much happens, but being 1991, this isn’t honestly a whole lot different than the opening cut on Apocalypse ’91, or other hip hop albums of the day.
The first few seconds of this say to the listener “You know, BBD’s ‘Poison‘ can be rewritten and rewritten again with an almost endless number of variations.” ABC‘s second single is a rap tune with a surprising number of “izzas” for a pre-Chronic rap jam whose hook is centered around a sample of the group’s first single (“Iesha”) and sweet drum machine programming very reminiscent of “Poison.” They also mention Boys II Men, who, if I recall correctly, hadn’t dropped “Motownphilly” quite yet.
Mental (So Pay Attention)
Another interlude/sound collage made up of some of the same samples and Michael Bivins voice snippets that appear during the breakdown of “Iesha.” These kids keep chanting out their five names, but three tracks in, their personalities don’t seem as distinct to me as, say, the five members of New Edition. And I listened to a lot of this record twenty-five years ago. So . . . Two of the first three tracks are basically interludes? “But,” you’re probably saying, “this was 1991! It was completely normal for two of the first three tracks on a hip hop album to be interludes. This album probably has 27 tracks like De La Soul Is Dead, right?” Uh, yeah. No, wait! It only has ten.
A tea kettle! No New Jack Swing production is complete without a tea kettle. But this is a Dallas Austin production. Aren’t tea kettles Teddy Riley‘s thing? After some orch hits, one of the boys rhymes “this girl is fly” with “she caught my eye.” This one is worthy of New Edition . . . or at least Motown label mates The Boys (of “Crazy” and “Dial My Heart” fame). Remember them? Me too. Now, those kids SELF-PRODUCED their own album? But… back to this jam. Uh, more orch hits. Teddy Riley called and wants his tea kettle back. “Stronger than Bacardi” raps a ten-year-old? With different vocals, this same instrumental track wouldn’t sound out of place on Oooooh . . . On the TLC Tip.
One of the more melodic, catchy, and memorable cuts on the album, the mid-tempo “being a kid is rough“-themed “My World” (which had a video that featured the boys wearing backwards clothes BEFORE Kriss Kross!) is this album’s “So What About Your Friends.”
I am still baffled by the fact that Dallas Austin, Michael Bivins, or whoever decided on the album’s track sequence didn’t start out the record with THE joint. It isn’t even on the first side of the record! From the “there’s a place in France” melody at the beginning of the song to the Public Enemy-sampling breakdown near the end, “Iesha” is audio platinum. It’s a perfect mix of a great melody, youthful spirit, golden age rap, and high-energy New Jack Swing production that serves perfectly as the evolutionary bridge between “Poison” and “Oochie Coochie.” There’s a line in the Jackson 5’s “2-4-6-8” that goes, “I pass you in my home room / wish you were in my own room” that young Michael sings with such conviction that . . . . man, that’s soul. It gets me every time. So does Shanice‘s “I Love Your Smile.” “Iesha” is like that.
After a masterpiece like “Iesha,” just about anything else will be a letdown. This song is an homage to the band and its team of songwriters and producers. The hook of “Spyderman” has the same distinctive catchy melody as the word “playground” in both “Playground” and “Iesha.”
That’s My Girl
Some kinda neat harmonies emerge after a minute or so of slightly atonal singing and acres of orch hits. “She’s so fine” is rhymed with “she blows my mind.” Someone makes a shout out to all the fly ladies out there. A goofy synth lead also makes appearances throughout.
Wait, these heartthrobs made it all the way to track nine without the obligatory ballad? Here it is, and it’s co-written by Maurice Starr! Maurice Starr who invented both New Edition and New Kids On The Block! So, it’s got that Jackson 5-ish Maurice Starr thing going on. Starr was a master of his craft, so this is actually a higher level of songcraft than anything on the album outside of “Iesha” and “My World.” Without Dallas Austin‘s songwriting, this one doesn’t really fit on the album. (Note: A quick visit to Wikipedia reveals “Jealous Girl” to be, in fact, a New Edition cover and the B-side of “Popcorn Love.”)
As a debut, Coolin’ at the Playground, Ya Know! does not succeed. While it perfectly encapsulates the musical career of the five young men on its cover, it is sadly not an album that leaves the listener wanting more, which is why the NKOTB or New Edition fan has so many more records to choose from. ABC did release another album, It Ain’t What U Wear, It’s How U Play It, in the completely different musical landscape of 1993, and there it is on Apple Music just begging for some curious cat to listen to it. But in all seriousness, Ralph Tresvant released a sophomore album too, and no one has ever heard that, either. When Nevermind knocked Dangerous out of the #1 later in this very year, it was clear that this school of music could no longer thrive in a new musical ecosystem populated by Spin Doctors, Coolios, Warren Gs, and Candleboxes. But ABC‘s lack of staying power can’t be blamed entirely on changing tastes. TLC‘s CrazySexyCool, which featured several Dallas Austin numbers, was a smash hit at the height of grunge-mania. Much like Maxine Nightingale or the Knickerbockers, ABC suffers from having one career-defining, kickass masterpiece of a hit song, and next to nothing else. But the world is a better place with “Iesha” in it.