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Strong Arm Steady - In Search of Stoney Jackson

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Artist: Strong Arm Steady

Album: In Search of Stoney Jackson

Label: Stones Throw

Review date: Jan. 27, 2010

To listen to Strong Arm Steady’s In Search of Stoney Jackson is to be reassured that the L.A. underground is alive and kicking. Who would have known? For those stuck on the East Coast, Southern California backpacker hip hop seemed to peter out when Dilated Peoples hired the pre-cyborg Kanye West to direct its crossover campaign. (That you can’t remember the names of Dilated’s rappers is all that needs to be said about the group’s success.) But Stoney Jackson reports that Phil Da Agony, Krondon, Planet Asia, Roscoe, Chase Infinite—you know, the rappers creeping between the scratches on those classic Beat Junkies mixtapes—are still recording for Stones Throw, that font of California classicism. And who is serving up this Westside cornucopia? None other than Madlib, Peanut Butter Wolf’s resident genius. It’s as if Gray Davis were still governor!

Strong Arm Steady, like the Freestyle Fellowship before it, is a collective hailing from Los Angeles County and beyond. (Member Mitchy Slick is from San Diego, and Planet Asia will go down in history as the only rapper to make a hot song about Fresno.) Together, the rappers made their names like bootleggers, moving their product locally and all too quietly. At one point, Strong Arm Steady numbered eight strong; that number was soon sliced in half. Eventually, the fourth member, Xzibit, left because, according to the group’s cryptic press sheet, “the business of music came more into play.” (Meaning, one can only guess, that he was tired of making music for nonpaying listserv subscribers.) That left three: Phil Da Agony, Krondon, and Mitchy Slick. Which, it turns out, is really only two. Slick is absent on Stoney Jackson, except for a pair of songs, including “Two Pistols,” a wonderfully disjointed anthem about gunplay set to a gospel wail.

Phil Da Agony and Krondon are not great rappers. Indeed, Krondon—who made his name in the late 1990s with the unspeakably slept-on “The Rules”—is probably more famous for his albino pigment than his voice, which, with its stuffed-sinus tone, can weirdly summon memories of Big Pun. So it’s a good thing that the tag-team opened up Stoney Jackson like a royal rumble and shared the stage with more than a dozen guest rappers. Most hail from the West, though label-mate Guilty Simpson and a surprisingly fun Talib Kweli provide some geographic diversity.

Like many collaborations, the material on Stoney Jackson is varied and can feel rudderless at moments. The opener “Best of Times,” featuring Little Brother’s Phonte on the hook, is stunning. But that soon leads to “Chittlins & Pepsi,” an eye-rolling riff on health food that nearly eclipses the late-’90s corniness of Dead Prez’s “Be Healthy.” The lyrics on Stoney Jackson seem improvised or, at the very least, lightly edited; the rhymes are generally little more than jam session noodling.

Taken as a whole, the contributions on Stoney Jackson are breezily amateurish. But that’s not a strike against Strong Arm Steady. Sure, Stoney Jackson may seem transient, like a briefly recalled memory of what independent hip hop sounded like in the early aughts. But what romantic days those were. The underground was vibrant, audiences were committed, California seemed potentially stable and solvent. If only Stoney Jackson were right, and the world could be as we remembered.

By Ben Yaster

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