The Masterful Place & Time Of Black Moon’s Enta Da Stage (Food For Thought)
Place and time can be everything in art. If a creator properly conveys place and time, the viewer of the artwork can learn so much more about the world it speaks from. When watching Goodfellas, you can undoubtedly know the stakes of every action before it’s explained to you. You can smell the sautéed onions and peppers in one moment, before feeling a drug-induced errand run in another. In reading To Kill A Mockingbird, 53 years later, we can feel justice bursting through years of systematic oppression, even if we never lived through it. To look at Pablo Picasso’s Three Musicians, just by the sharp edges and intricate suit print of the guitarist, you can understand that 1921 Paris was a groundbreaking, vibrant time for young people.
Black Moon’s 1993 debut album, Enta Da Stage is one of Hip-Hop’s best examples of subtle-yet-beautifully executed place and time.
Following a 12-month span where Dr. Dre and Ice Cube (care of The Chronic and The Predator, respectively) had provided melodic, car-music with lessons on how to survive in South Central—the dangers of red-lights, distrust of police and the perils of throwing the wrong sign in the wrong place in time—listeners better understood the angst that led to the Los Angeles Riots a few years earlier.
In many ways, Enta Da Stage was New York’s response-record. It described not just Brooklyn, but the whole five boroughs in the early ‘90s, from a participant’s perspective. Enta Da Stage never reached gold status, and it certainly did not win a Grammy. The Nervous Records LP did not even debut in the Top 200. And, its singles (“Who Got da Props?” and “I Got Cha Opin’”) barely cracked the Billboard Top 100. However, at 20 years old as of this week, it’s a go-back record to understand a time in Hip-Hop music and New York that we can never have back.
While the first three singles get exponentially more coverage, “Buck ‘Em Down,” the album’s fourth single, is always my personal go-to. In title alone, the song is threatening. A fight record, the song is about street jux, and at the same time, taking the microphone by force. From chronicling so-called tough-talkers getting manhandled in prison, park shootings, and Hip-Hop shows gone wrong, Buckshot Shorty, like borough brothers Lil Dap and O.C., is a master of capturing the vibe. True to the 1970s prototypical MC, Buck talks slick on records and brings sounds to life. Although he’s since released audio books on operating an independent label, and was a model for Ecko Clothing, Buckshot was a raw rude-boy in the early ‘90s. The onetime intern of The Bomb Squad’s Hank Shocklee was talking about aiming “cross-bows at hoes,” “spittin’ on ya grave,” and “shooting the wack in the back.” Like many abrasive 1993 records, this was par for the course in the ruff-neck era. Like Snoop Dogg, Ice-T or Cube, Buck’s tone and message has changed a bit in his wisdom. However those around the Boot Camp Clik understand that the crew has a propensity to shoot a few fair ones, if called to do so.
Between 1993 and 2005, violent crime in New York City would decrease 75%. Just weeks before Mayor Rudy Giuliani took office, 5FT, Buck and Evil were describing the previous New York City with the unwritten rules of avoiding the last train car, not jogging in the park alone and going to Times Square after dark at your own risk. The Clintons weren’t living in Harlem, parts of today’s Willamsburg were still known as Bushwick, and the High Line was still a series of homes, pharmacies, and seedy bars. With the album cover shot in Union Square, Black Moon represented the MTA-mobilized youth who knew the city up and down, and hustled to succeed. Pupils of old school radio pioneer Chuck Chillout, Black Moon traveled the boroughs to engage with Hip-Hop and get their name up without a gimmick. However, in between, they were high school friends who were staples of Franklin Avenue.
Although he is seemingly more overlooked than A Tribe Called Quest’s Jarobi at times, 5FT is an important element within the group. Although he raps on a mere three songs on Enta Da Stage (just one more than Smif N’ Wessun, and two more than Dru-Ha), the F.A.P. (Franklin Avenue Posse) thug had a raw, stick-up kid edge to him. To this day, in shows, 5FT’s energy transcends hype-man, and he’s a strong role-player in a close-knit crew. The quintessential Rap trio had an interesting chemistry, in its lead MC and enforcer complement.
In addition to the MCs and their signature unorthodox flows, “Buck ‘Em Down” is a prime example of DJ Evil Dee’s greatness. He was among the first to sample Donald Byrd’s 1976 dreamy jam “Wind Parade.” Rather than just take an excellent chunk of Disco-Soul, Da Beatminer famously filtered the sample and used a tape-dubbing method to make it sound dusty, weeded, and alive—“gettin’ nice.” The sample fades throughout the record, bringing the DJ element of the group to the forefront, and making the music as unpredictable as the vertically challenged MCs’ antics.
Throughout much of the album, Evil Dee (and his blood-brother Mr. Walt) forged a gestalt background of Reggae, Jazz, and some of the hardest drums Hip-Hop had yet heard. While one song from the next may have different elements, few East Coast LPs of the early ’90s were as cohesive in sound. Years later, spending a day in Evil’s studio, the former record store clerk alluded that much of the sound had to do with using filters in his mix. In this week’s Duck Down-produced retrospective, Evil said that he was forced to mix the album when Nervous’ allocated engineer displayed no knowledge of the Hip-Hop sound. In turn, the high school DJ used a medium he knew—cassette tapes, to capture the sound that people knew him for. If legend is true, E.D.S. was recorded from DAT to cassette tape, and back to DAT. The fuzzy, compressed sound that resulted resonated in the chord of many—especially using the Sony Walkman or Discman.
The songs that many folks gravitated towards were “Who Got da Props?” and “How Many MC’s…” The LP’s first and second singles, respectively, were street anthems. The same Autumn that KRS-One declared a Return To Boom-Bap, Buckshot devoted his introduction to upstaging other rappers, and in doing so, talking about city life. The songs had a sound driven by percussion and obscure samples that departed from some of the mainstream hashes of popular 80’s songs. The rhythms matched those of marching up avenues, and the clickety-clack of surface trains on the L. The way that Dr. Dre’s gliding synths synched up with smooth California pavement, Black Moon’s edginess had all the color and candor of Gotham. Subway steps, park-benches, and Times Square, when it was still living up to the legend of “The Deuce.” Place and time.
Black Moon came with a grit, and kept it through the next 10 years. While Nas, Raekwon, and The Notorious B.I.G. ascended from army-jacket-wearing street hoods to Hype Williams-portrayed mafiosos, you never hear Buck or Five brag about anything materialistic. They were train-hoppin’, blunt-smokin’, Rap-lovin’ twenty-somethings kicking routines that descended from their high school camaraderie. It’s simple concrete content with very little name-brands, no mentions of cars, and Chinese takeout menus in lieu of any fresh-caught seafood.
The music that followed Enta Da Stage in Hip-Hop sold millions. Illmatic would go platinum in the decade following its release, and while recordings began as early as 1991, Nas and his board of producers had the ability to watch their city react to the street anthems. In crafting Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, RZA was able to hear the way Evil Dee and Walt programmed drums in order to make “Incarcerated Scarfaces.” Even Gang Starr’s sound would have a slightly rawer sound on Hard To Earn than their previous works. Although it seems to live in the shadows of so many reactions, Black Moon’s Enta Da Stage was the first. This album cut the ribbon on one of the greatest three-year regional runs in Hip-Hop.
As a product of the last days of the New York outsiders were warned not to visit, Enta Da Stage and its makers endured well. The album’s four singles (and a host of revolutionary remixes) are popular on ’90s playlists, parties, and old school lunch radio hours. None of its makers would match the success of their breakthrough work, but all evolved naturally. Today, Buckshot (with partner Dru-Ha) share offices with popular magazine The Fader and Cornerstone Promotions, who work with Kanye West, The Gorillaz, and Big Boi. Duck Down, the label they started in response to Nervous’ shortcomings would later sign B-Real, Pharoahe Monch, and other premiere acts. However, a big part of what makes the label so celebrated, so trusted, and respected is that people want timepieces, and Enta Da Stage is a living artifact of place and time.