DJ Quik’s Safe + Sound Still Has Groundbreaking Funk 20 Years Later (Food For Thought)
Beginning his musical career on the mixtape circuit in Compton, California, DJ Quik has gone on to become the most expansive signee to Profile Records. In the 25 years since, he has spent time as an “R&B pretty boy,” the creator of a Top 10 album, an independent distributor, and an artist on a six-year hiatus. In between those musical and personal movements, Quik released Safe + Sound, an album whose title may reference his sense of inner peace after years of tension with Ruthless Records, a bounce-back after a scrapped album, and his reunion with early manager, Marion “Suge” Knight. Today (February 21, 2015), that album turns 20, reminding us how pivotal 1995 was for West Coast Rap and for David Blake himself.
Despite being imbued with the earmarks of most of Quik’s music–Funk-based sampling, tongue-in-cheek wordplay, and a heaping dose of misogyny–the album ushered in a new Quik, one who was leaving the streets of Compton for more mainstream projects like the Above The Rim soundtrack and soon, 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me. Already a platinum-selling artist (thanks to 1991’s Quik Is the Name), the MC/producer/DJ released Safe + Sound during Rap music’s own “gold rush,” when label executives all but tripped over their own feet trying to sign a hot California artist. With all that competition in his backyard, it seems Quik took the opportunity to improve on his already incredible production techniques, incorporating a significant amount of live instrumentation, including contributions from George Clinton, the progenitor of Funk. In addition, Cameo front man Larry Blackmon and P-Funk/Talking Heads pianist Bernie Worrell can be heard grooving on the record, elevating Quik’s funky proclivities from being not only ingeniously sampled but also orchestrated. Other inclusions like a long flute solo on “Somethin’ 4 Tha Mood” and the third installment of his jazzy “Quik’s Groove” tracks make the album a sonically dynamic piece of work, both quintessentially West Coast and decidedly progressive.
The album helped to add definition to the concept of “P” funk, which Quik aimed to differentiate from, G-Funk. The term P-Funk worked in two ways, as an homage to Parliament Funkadelic, the original P Funk, and Quik’s Tree Top Piru family (a focal point of the album). What was more significant, however, was that it created a separation between himself and G-Funk, the “gangster funk” most commonly associated with Dr. Dre, Warren G, and Above The Law’s Cold 187um. By repackaging the P-Funk concept, Quik was unabashedly reminding us that he was the originator of West Coast Gangster Funk, hollerin’ “I’m the first nigga that was ‘Bangin on Wax.’ Yeah, if you remember, 1987 underground tapes.” At a time when artists like Ice-T, King T, and Quik’s foe, MC Eiht were keeping their street ties closer to the vest, David Blake was brandishing his neighborhood.
Lyrically, the album is almost entirely devoted to sex, partying, and barbs aimed at Eiht, whom he calls out several times, perhaps most significantly in the intro (“and this is still Eiht-killa”). “Dollaz + Sense” was not only a brutal verbal attack on his nemesis (“Givin’ your set a bad name wit your misspelled name, E-I-H-T, now should I continue? Yeah you left out the ‘G’ ’cause the ‘G’ ain’t in you”) but also a single, helping to change the diss record from a platform for boasting about lyrical capabilities to one about who was bigger in the streets. Quik, who had been dissing Eiht throughout the ’90s (and vice versa) suddenly engaged listeners who were previously unaware. The Death Row formula, making targets out of Eazy-E, Luke, Da’Brat, Jermaine Dupri, B.G. Knocc Out, and others doubled as a marketing formula that applied to Safe + Sound. On the musical side, Roger Troutman’s talkbox makes a memorable appearance on “Can I Eat It?,” a virulent track demonizing female sexuality. The juxtaposition of lyrics like “have her wash up if the hoe is a hoochie, and keep your mouth away from that coochie” against the backdrop of a talkbox-inspired hook is unmistakably Quik. He also makes it clear from the get-go that all he cares about is “music and sex, a fifth of Remy and some big fat checks.” Despite those ostensibly pedestrian motifs, Quik’s storytelling abilities make us forget that we’re listening to some of the raunchiest lyrics and hardest-hitting diss tracks in Rap history.
A big external influence in the formation of Quik’s solid output on the album is his relationship with Death Row Records. Later in 1995, he would perform “Dollaz + Sense” (which debuted on Tha Row’s late 1994 Murder Was The Case soundtrack) during a label medley. Not since Run-DMC’s ties with Def Jam, had a non-label artist been treated with such inclusion. The relationship was only building. Within a year of S+S‘s release, Quik was joining Daz Dillinger as the perceived heir to Dr. Dre’s empty studio seat. The longtime friend of Knight’s would spend the rest of the ’90s at the helm for 2Pac, Danny Boy, Tha Outlawz, and even wishful sound-alike Top Dogg. With such a bountiful marriage, it seems strange that S+S doesn’t feature any guest appearances from Death Row’s extensive roster. Instead, Quik opted for hometown heroes, enlisting the help of 2nd II None (who recorded an unreleased album, 1994’s Tha Shit with Knight at the controls), Hi-C, and Penthouse Players Clique’s Playa Hamm. In hindsight, the decision was arguably brilliant; “Keep Tha ‘P’ In It” and “Sucka Free” are two of the funkiest tracks on the album.
The album’s jewel however, may likely be it’s title cut. Quik, who is one of Hip-Hop’s most outspoken interviewees, opened up in a way that was new to his listeners. The autobiographical track takes the idea of the Compton streets and strips away some of the cinematic images from N.W.A. and The Chronic, and simply tells a very specific story. Quik recalls his pursuit of paper, his close ties to those who never looked beyond Hub City, and the 1988 decision to move out that may have delivered him fully to music, saving his life. The song itself tells the story of what Quik left behind, but also what he’s carried with him, especially apparent on his third album.
Twenty years later, Safe+Sound continues to show its impact. Whether Game or Blu, Kendrick Lamar or Dom Kennedy, so many of today’s impactful Southern California voices are clearly taking pages from the Profile Records release. Quik’s musicality, and laid back grooves are giant influences on the TDE crew, as well as Terrace Martin. The samples, insight and genre-fusing courage are especially big in Hip-Hop today. Moreover, the fearless, unashamed promotion of street life is something that’s gained greater controversy in the Internet era. Most of all though, the ability to be all of these things—vulgar, belligerent, cocky, thoughtful, and gangsta seemed possible—all while giving music the ultimate focus. DJ Quik, like his peers, legitimized Gangsta Rap as a genre, not just for its antics, flare, or violence, but because these were reality raps, stretched out over courageous and complex productions, aware and considerate to the greats. Safe + Sound is a benchmark album, albeit often in the shadow of some others, for just this reason.
DJ Quik, criminally absent from most discussions about the best to ever do it, has spent over 25 years cultivating a soundtrack for the West Coast, oscillating from low to high profile. An artist whose debut went gold – and eventually platinum – without much video or airplay, Quik has often played the role of the perpetual underdog, not earning his credit where due and never recapturing the commercial success of his earliest release. Nevertheless, Heads are well aware that the West Coast sound and the P-Funk/G-funk era would sound very different were it not for the work put in by DJ Quik.
Amanda Mester is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. Follow her on Twitter @CanEye_KickIt