Charizma/Peanut Butter Wolf

Big Shots

(Stones Throw; 2003)

By Peter Hepburn | 26 January 2004

A few days back I read an interview transcript of Big Boi and Andre 3000, known to one and all as OutKast, talking with VH1 in which they were asked to name the album that has served as the benchmark for the hip hop genre since its release. There was little hesitation and the answer was unanimous: the brilliant 1991 release The Low End Theory. Although the occasional artist has come close to creating an album of similar quality (the Roots’ Things Fall Apart, Black Star’s self-titled album, OutKast’s Aquemini to name a few contenders) none have gone beyond the mastery shown on A Tribe Called Quest’s sophomore album.

The beats and rhythms were deeply influenced by jazz; the delivery was quick, clear, and positive while still maintaining a degree of credibility. The beats moved beyond simple canned material and paved new ground in the instrumental area of rap music. The Ummah, Tribe’s production team, highlighted the talents of a young Jay Dee, who has gone on to become one of the premier underground rap producers. Of course other movements were on the move at the time. Public Enemy and N.W.A. had both released darker, career defining albums just three years earlier. Biggie and Tupac were still trapped in the underground and one of the most promising on the west coast was Charizma. Yes, we seem to have finally gotten to the subject of the review. Don’t think I didn’t consider pontificating for a few more paragraphs.

Charizma, born in 1973, had a flow well ahead of his time. His delivery alternated between quick-fire bursts, slower rhymes, and well-executed off-tempo segments. Many considered him the prime candidate to be the leading force in rap for the ’90s. Unfortunately he was gunned down in 1993 and his career output was limited to a number of singles.

Charizma’s choice of collaborators served him well in this respect (and really in all respects). Charizma’s producer/beat master was then going by DJ Chris Cut, but he later changed his name to Peanut Butter Wolf, and in 1996 founded the exceptional underground hip hop label Stones Throw Records. They issued the occasional single from Charizma, but now, more than a decade after the recording of these sessions PB Wolf has finally decided to show them the light of day.

The most impressive thing about the record is that you are immediately struck by the distinct feeling that Charizma could have fit in perfectly among today’s MCs, and most likely surpassed the vast majority of them. The older vocabulary (far tamer than anything being used today) certainly dates the material, but then there is the distinct old-school, golden age vibe to the whole record. PB Wolf’s beats are perfect for his rapper and fit his delivery flawlessly. It’s not clear how much he built on his beats, but if these are the originals it just goes to prove he deserves the accolades he has received for his solo work (My Vinyl Weighs a Ton, the Badmeanigood series). The unexpected drum breaks and the subtle under-layering of secondary beats and well-fit loops to a good number of tracks set them well apart from traditional old school canned beats while still maintaining much of the feel.

The album opens with what is probably the strongest track, "Here’s a Smirk." PB Wolf takes a back seat, laying a simple beat with proper drops and lets Charizma run. He comes out charging-his delivery is fast but comprehensible, dealing mainly with his background, aspirations, and sexual exploits. On "Methods" the beat is slowed down, letting PB Wolf play with a synth line and a drum track that kicks in about 12 seconds later than it would have if left to a modern producer, a much appreciated touch. Charizma slows down as well, and the result, while still compelling is not as entertaining as the faster tracks on the album.

"Jack the Mack" brings back a fast tempo, quick delivery, and the obligatory backup singers. Charizma tells the story of Jack, a crack-slinger for whom an evening of casual sex ends in an HIV infection. While they sample A Tribe Called Quest’s "Butter" on the track, Charizma’s delivery on the track is much more clearly west-coast influenced, reminiscent at times of Eazy-E’s repetitious, playful flow. The short "Talk about a Girl" is noteworthy for the piano and drums beats which works well with the laid back flow.

One of Charizma’s main splashes in the rap world in his own time was with "Red Light Green Light," which serves largely as an exercise for Charizma’s skills on the mic. He deftly constructs verses and then cuts them short at the call of "red light." This sounds rather hokey by modern rap standards but he is able to do it convincingly and without making it seem overly contrived. "Tell You Something," rides another terrific beat and Charizma gets a couple of good one-liners in ("cause girls just wanna have fun/but deep inside my heart I know/girls just wanna have funds").

A darker beat drives "Gatha Round" which is begins to feel uninspired after a few plays. Samples abound, including some pretty simple, obvious choices and the boasting isn’t anything particularly clever. "Devotion" returns Charizma to the story rap format, which is a strength of his. He promises a girl he’ll be faithful, cheats on her and then, in his words "I got, got a taste of my own medicine" when she leaves him for another man. "Apple Juice Break" sounds as if it could have been used as a great base track but as is it’s relatively insignificant.

"My World Premier" is the other single Charizma has gotten a fair deal of attention for. The track is based on a staggered drum line and a looped cheer, and clocks in at just over two minutes. While Charizma sounds good at the up tempo speed, the beats could have been more interesting and the looped cheer detracts from the song. "Ice Cream Truck" also disappoints, though this case it’s Charizma’s style that really feels dated and the subject is mediocre.

The end of the album picks the quality back up though, starting with the excellent "Charizma what." PB Wolf works a snare drum over a jazz beat and Charizma is faster and smarter on the track than almost anywhere else on the album. When he spits out lines like, "cause most MCs are fake/get on the mic and they break like corn flakes/I ain’t tryin’ to break, stakin’ my name in the rap game/rhymes so dope they go down in the hall of fame/Charizma!…yo that’s the name I fawn on/I’m not from New York yet an island but I’m strong," you wonder how much he could have accomplished given s few more years.

“Fair Weathered Friend" is another solid track from Charizma, but the last high point comes with "Soon to be Large." The track has the most self-consciously old school feel to it-the beat rides a strange amalgam of horns, reggae samples, faded drum lines and Charizma lets loose. Most of it is just braggadocio, but it is done far more convincingly here than on any of the other tracks. At the end of the song, PB Wolf has spliced in a 1991 interview of Charizma, 18 years old at the time, talking about rapping in which he comes off as just an eager kid who really just likes his art form. "Pacin’ the Floor," works perfectly as the final track. The beat initially sounds exactly like something Tribe would use, but PB Wolf drops a deeper bass line and scratches throughout. There’s a definite feeling of the track being cut short (it clocks in at just over a minute-perhaps just a work in progress at the time of its recording) that seems sadly apropos. There’s also a bizarre little bit tacked on at the end of a man singing "hey guy, hey big guy" repeatedly. One assumes this is best understood by, and intended for, those who knew Charizma well.

Overall this is not a landmark in rap music. It certainly is an excellent album, and highlights a talent that, with time, could have even challenged Tribe’s creative dominance in the genre. But it also has the feel of an incomplete work. Many of the tracks, at least the vocals, seem to be works in progress. Of course, that’s the all we can expect from a rapper who has been dead for more than a decade now. As incomplete as this disc seems at points, there are certainly tracks which highlight a genius, and it is good to finally have a proper release from an artist who clearly deserved the praise he garnered in his lifetime.