JUST ICE, Back To The Old School, LP

“Back to the Old School” was the first LP from Brooklyn/Bronx-bred hardcore rhyme stylist Just-Ice (Joseph Williams). According to his bio, he was a former bouncer in punk-rock clubs and a member of local NYC hip-hop crew the Sound Masters before securing a deal with New York indie Sleeping Bag Records, under their hip-hop subsidiary, Fresh. Paired with Fresh A&R man/producer Kurtis Mantronik (of the rap crew Mantronix), the duo would collaborate to release this highly influential LP in 1986. Very well-received at the street level and with hip-hop friendly nightclubs, “Back to the Old School” served as an underground counterpoint of sorts to the recent mainstream success of Run-DMC and the Def Jam stable of artists. Sleeping Bag/Fresh collapsed by the early 90’s, but Traffic Entertainment has recently re-mastered and re-released the album (this is perhaps its first pressing on CD).


Just-Ice’s aggressive, gruff baritone set a standard for future MCs to follow like Freddie Foxxx and Def Jam’s DMX. As produced by Mantronik, all the rhythm tracks feature either furiously up-tempo breakbeats or bass-heavy accompaniment to Just-Ice’s human beat-box man, Cool DMX (no relation). Several of these songs would end up being sampled by either rap or electronica artists in the years to come. The LP’s opener, the chorus-less and cowbell-punctuated “Cold Gettin’ Dumb” finds Just-Ice letting it be known that he’s taking no prisoners: “To the best of my knowledge I guess that I’m fresher, when I manifest, I never protest…” The semi-ballad “Love Story” dared to flex a romantic pose, anticipating LL Cool J’s more refined “I Need Love” by about a year; the title track is a great showcase for Mantronik’s DJ skills of mixing & scratching. “Little Bad Johnny” gives listeners a touch of the reggae influence that would inform much of Just-Ice’s later work; more traditional battle raps anchor “Put that Record Back On” and “Turbo Charged”.


Just-Ice is a more than capable lyricist, but the period production values (largely devoid of hooks and R&B melody) may be off-putting to listeners used to contemporary rap. The casual sexism of even golden-age hip-hop creeps into a few songs, e.g., “Gangster of Hip-Hop”, and is blatant on “That Girl is a Slut”: Just goes into lurid detail about his sexual conquest of a known whore–though how this leaves him unscathed is an unintentional irony (Just claims to have worn “nine rubbers” just to play it safe). Here, Cool DMX gives pretty much the same beat-box rhythm as Doug E. Fresh & Slick Rick’s “La Di Da Di”, and the content is a variation on the theme of macho guys being dismissive of desperate `hood chicks. Depending on whether one is inclined to give credit or place blame, it also stands with period Too Short and Schoolly-D in foreshadowing the heavy pimp ethos that would define much of rap in the 90’s and beyond. This would be the last full album of Just-Ice’s collaboration with Mantronik. He wouldn’t show up again until 1993’s Gun Talk.

As a document of Reagan-era hip-hop, “Back to the Old School” makes more sense now than it may have when it was first released (for old-school credentials, look no further than the period graffiti artwork that graces the cover, highlighting a Roland 909 drum machine). Still, even with the two bonus songs, the album is only ten cuts deep (compared to eight on the original release). Perhaps not all of the masters were readily available (and for a long-defunct label like Fresh, that’s certainly possible) but Traffic’s re-releases of the Cold Chillin’ catalog have been much more substantive. Knowledgeable crate-diggers could probably have found some more 12-inch/EP sides to include.

Overall rating: A-


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