With the release of their self-titled debut album bringing The Brand New Heavies to the attention of the soul and jazz crowds in both the UK and the US, and gaining them quite a cult following to boot, it seemed somewhat of an odd choice to follow it up the following year with an album that was such a complete departure from their established sound. Whereas The Brand New Heavies featured the band’s tight instrumental work, and soulful, sassy vocals courtesy of US import N’dea Davenport, Heavy Rhyme Experience Vol.1 would completely flip the script, with N’dea nowhere to be heard and instead teaming the trio up with a host of established and up-and-coming rap talent.
The seed for the album was sown during BNH’s first New York show, where MC Serch and Q-Tip joined them on stage and provided freestyle raps over the band’s instrumental encore. Though now quite popular, the idea of hip-hop artists being backed by a full band, rather than a DJ, was pretty much unheard of at the time, but Delicious Vinyl supported the band’s idea to record a live hip-hop project, and so Heavy Rhyme Experience Vol.1 was born.
The album kicks off with the Main Source-assisted “Bonafide Funk,” which gives a nod to their debut from the year before. Large Professor sums up the album’s concept from the off, delivering the line “Brand New Heavies / play the shit that people used to listen to in ’70s Chevy’s / so we don’t have to loop up a beat to funk your roof off.” If anyone was nervous about how BNH would translate from a soulful jazz-funk outfit to a hard-line hip-hop act, “Bonafide Funk” should have laid those fears to rest. Gang Starr was up next on album highlight “It’s Getting Hectic,” with Guru delivering his laid-back bars over a somewhat restrained guitar/drum BNH instrumental. The use of sparse horn stabs only used to accentuate Guru’s lyrics, rather than being a feature in their own right, was a departure for a band whose instrumental work had always been on par with, or at the forefront of, the vocals. This collaboration would undoubtedly go on to inspire Guru’s successful Jazzmatazz series, on which he collaborated with N’dea on a couple of tracks.
“Wake Me When I’m Dead” sees BNH team up with Masta Ace, himself no stranger to acid jazz having guested on the Young Disciples‘ seminal 1991 release, Road To Freedom. The track has one of the strongest instrumentals on the album, with a killer combination of bass and drums providing a foundation for Ace’s story of staying true to one’s roots despite pressure to do otherwise. Just beating “Wake Me When I’m Dead” to the post in terms of best instrumental on the album, “Death Threat” significantly ups the funk factor, delivering a Blaxploitation groove over which Kool G. Rap delivers one of the album’s most hard-hitting raps. Although it stands alone as one of the album’s best cuts, it does jar slightly with the album’s other tracks that tend to lean towards more mellow subject matter.
The album closes out in style with “Soul Flower” featuring The Pharcyde who, at the time, were unsigned and pretty much unknown. Their feature on “Soul Flower” (which would later be included on their debut album, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde) contributed to their signing with BNH’s US label, Delicious Vinyl, and going on to become one of the most beloved alternative hip-hop acts of the ’90s. The track itself sees the members of The Pharcyde delivering quick-fire lyrics over a bass-centric, organic sounding live jam, which acts as a great introduction to the music they would go on to make, as well as functioning as Heavy Rhyme Experience‘s grand finale.
The concept behind Heavy Rhyme Experience Vol.1 was a gamble for The Brand New Heavies. They came onto the scene with a signature sound, and a gifted vocalist in the form of N’dea Davenport, but chose to put all that aside and instead explore the hip-hop world, a gamble on what would only be their second release. Did it pay off? On the whole yes, the album only peaked at #49 on the Billboard R&B chart, but critics applauded the project’s experimental nature, and it brought The Brand New Heavies to the attention of a crowd who would otherwise have taken little notice. Thankfully they decided to stick to their soul/jazz/funk roots on subsequent releases, but there have long been rumors that a volume two could be in the works, and I for one would not be mad at that.