Sadat X

Black October

(Riverside Drive; 2006)

By Aaron Newell | 22 October 2007

Sadat X is the best second-string MC from “The Golden Age” because he’s the only one to hustle his way into first-string ability. He has eclipsed his former front-man, has never had to write a dis song about Puba in order to validate his solo work, and has seen his sense of identity solidify with each solo release. Outside of Kevroc and Brewin he’s got the most unique, original, and fresh flow in current NYC hip hop, which is an achievement in itself because he’s been using it for over a decade. And it’s tough for me to lavish the dude with praise like this, he’s been a first-string asshole on record more than once. We’ll get into that in a second.

Right now, however, we’ll take a quick look at the present: Sadat X just went to jail -- on Friday -- for 8 months on a gun possession charge (quoth X: “it was some snitch motherfuckers”).

Maybe ten years ago he’d have glorified this, tried to turn it to his advantage (see Slick Rick). He’s had more than one problematic patch in his writing in the past; sometimes he’s been downright hate-filled and ignorant: “I freak flows / fuck up a faggot / I don’t understand their ways so I ain’t down with gays” (the hook on that song being “Punks jump up / and get beat down”). Also see “ladies, stand by your man / even when he beats you with the back of his hand.” Funny, that first line is Sadat’s infamous clip from one of Brand Nubian’s biggest singles: “Punks Jump Up.” The second line is an obscure drop from his debut solo album that hardly anyone heard, the Loud-released Wild Cowboys (known as “The Xylophone Album” and “The Pete Rock Compost” by a buddy of mine in Grade 11 -- if you’ve heard it and The Main Ingredient you know what he means).

There’s no excuse for that bullshit. Stuff like that has ruined both Buju Banton and Shabba Ranks, and begs remixes featuring MC OJ Simpson (prod. Ike Turner). But Sadat’s always flouted his 5%er philosophy, and when your 5%er philosophy is structured around the notion that men are “Gods,” to be contrasted with women, who are “Earths” (check the “seed planting”/property-sowing inference), and that anything that doesn’t fit into that paradigm is an aberration, then when you’re a testosterone-charged young twenty-something touring the world with your smoking buddies on the back of those ideologies, there’s a chance you’ll take that millennia-old notion of gender relations and spin it a certain way, in some ironic Popestyle (or, you know, like all good Xtians: Bush, Howard, Harper, etc.). Keep in mind, however: those lines are at least ten years old -- they’re the work of a kid finding something to rage against, doing it from inside the ideological steely walls of a group of like-minded artists and friends, and getting a huge and supportive international audience in the process. Tupac wasn’t always all “Dear Mama,” either.

On recent material, X has shown up with some different philosophical struggles: love of family, love of work (yep), love of life in general. Check this album title and the last (“Experience and Education”): he’s been emphasizing on these past two records that 1) he’s a grown-ass man now and has had to cut a lot of bullshit out of his life, and 2) ironically for the co-author of songs like “Lick Dem Motherfuckers,” he’s not looking to glamorize the gun charge, nor is he looking forward to the inevitable “lockdown” album. The title track says so: “had to cop / took a plea / no grounds for trial / now for 8 months to a year / won’t see my child.” He’s seen more people “die tryin,” and has accordingly become more introspective in his writing, more light-hearted, more grounded, less dogmatic, more righteous, and has therefore maintained more relevance than a lot of golden agers who might be over thirty, and who accordingly push rickety, outdated social attitudes like they’re twice that age.

On both Black October and 2004’s Experience and Education, the man formerly nicked as “The Dot Father” takes special measures to set himself in the “now.” He’s written two entire songs summarizing a given day’s news headlines and lowlights, spinning society via first-hand snarky charisma instead of the second-hand quasi-religious dogma from ten years ago. And it works, especially over a Diamond D funk-swing handclapper “The Post”: “Mets in first / Yanks in second / white boys drink in front of the stadium / but who’s checkin.” On the pummelling, bass-heavy Spinna-prod banger Sadat goes so far as to rap his incarceration miss list: “my mother’s heartbroken / my aunts is sad / and since November 8th I been grieving my dad / …but please don’t send me no ghetto books / I already know about fights and hooks.” He does ask for someone to send him new shower shoes, however. See his Myspace for his new address, up in about a week’s time.

At the time of the felony indictment, Sadat was a sixth grade teacher and sometime basketball coach who rapped to supplement his income. In the rap hall of fame that I curate in my daydreams, he’s partially responsible for one of the most critically-acclaimed hip hop albums from the “golden era” (One For All, subject of a Source Magazine five mic review back when that meant something -- kind of like Illmatic), and one of the most critically-acclaimed unabashedly 5%er records ever, In God We Trust. He has rapped on beats by J-Zone, Pharrell, Just Blaze, A Tribe Called Quest, DJ Premier, Buckwild, Diamond D, Madlib, Prince Paul, Rza, Pete Rock, Showbiz, Beatminerz, Danger Mouse, Lord Finesse, Large Professor and DJ Hi-Tek. Who’d I leave out…Erick Sermon? Marley Marl? Mike Patton? He’s rapped on beats with Boot Camp Click, Jay-Z, Nas, Biggie, Common, Kool Keith, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, Big L, and Breeze Brewin. Not to mention the other guys in fucking Brand Nubian. Or Everlast.


And he’s the Miles Davis of rap, the former dirtbag asshole maestro turned maestro. Sadat X accomplished his historical edification / Holy Grail of six degrees of separation by hardly ever rapping on beat, full stop. He’s atonal freestyle scat with words, using a discernable meter approximately twice over the eight releases that he’s headlined (either that or he’s writing verses using algorithms, like a good 5%er might). And it’s only suiting that the most warped flow in NY classic-rap comes via that voice. Guru, Nas, Brewin, Biggie -- these rappers are the exact opposite of Sadat X. His voice can be boderline shrill with its nasal whinny and Cali-schoolgirl syllable extension, which would likely be tough to take in large quantities if it weren’t for the flow, the kilterlessness of which could never be maximized with the traditional smooth, throaty smokecloud. In all fairness, and with much respect to Dinco D, X’s flow has never been redone. This is because it has never been distillable to a form more pure, clear, and basic than “Sadat X’s flow.” Off-beat non-rhyming non-sequiturs are the plague to most rappers, but something interesting happens when they’re dealt by X: the listener gets jolted by every bump, words and images pop out of the parts of a verse that less-capable MC’s garble on their way to the fourth beat. It’s impossible for Sadat to lull anyone into complacency, like what happens when listening to 50 Cent ABAB his way through a bad contrast. Example:

Lately yo I’ve been walking tightropes
It’s an adventure every day as I walk down the block
Quiet baldhead is like a bad motherfucker
All charged up from Madison Ave
I’m up on the stage, did you read the front page
Give me the old school mic with the cord
I stand up on a table
Give a fuck about a label
We all can’t brawl, we all can’t brawl
It’ll be your downfall when you’re going like this
Is it the cash or the hash or the stash that compels me
Gassed, kids tell me, but my crew bring me back
They stay on my back so I don’t act like alladat

Through the non-rhyming non-sequiturs (rappers say hello to a technique called “juxtaposition”), X provides more imagery in 12 bars of innuendo than Fat Joe ever clobbered us with over six albums. The short verse is, unfortunately, not from the new album. It’s from “Alladat” from Brand Nubian’s Everything is Everything, the second track on which is a horrendous 4.5-minute blunted-to-unconsciousness freestyle that makes absolutely no sense in the context of any semi-well-put-together record, never mind the third major label record by an increasingly militant minority-minority group who released an international single and video about beating the shit out of people, using a beat built around a sparse, static-riddled Diamond D break. But look, post-Rawkus kids, now you know why folks are so nostalgic about early-nineties rap: everything during the “golden age” was arguably experimental, consistently “new,” and always turning rollercoaster corners, right down to the personalities presented (there never has been, and never will be, another pop song like “Punks Jump Up,” for better or for worse). Major labels hardly knew enough about hip hop to figure out when something was classifiable as “a little out there”; any comparable standard was still developing, as were the in-house copyright lawyers and loop-licensing departments. And, most importantly, there were no settled MC templates, no meeting grounds on which pop culture had a binding contract for weekly Saturday night soirees with Timbaland and The Neptunes and Dr Dre. Everything was up in the air, so everything went, right down to a new group of 5%ers splicing Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians to create a boy vs. girl argument about the dangers and pitfalls of drug life, in 1989: “What I am is what I am / Well, what you are is a stunt, man.” This is an era where Capitol thought it could turn a profit on Aceyalone remix 12”’s, when RJD2, pop star incumbent, can’t do that today. This is an era where Loud Records thought it had its shit together. It was a good time for weirdness, because there wasn’t a normal yet.

Black October is an album with its biggest big toe stuck in the early '90s and everything else firmly entrenched and embroiled in 20 October, 2006. The big toe is Sadat X’s flow, which is genius as it ever was. But, as noted above, long-gone are the more questionable articles of his preach, but retained are the same spirit and dedication to community that brought about that militaristic approach to society in the first place. This time, however, X expresses this strength in the form of songs about meeting single moms at BBQ’s. On "Throw the Ball," Ayatollah's sweet single-sample soul loop recalls Ice Cube’s hoe-down mix of “It Was a Good Day,” and Sadat acknowledges this, ad-libbing at the end “It was no violence today, no violence today” after rapping through his story of copping a hot-mom phone number through basketball coaching. The song borders on beautiful, with its slick soul bite, and is a highlight of the record.

Contrast that with THE album highlight: J-Zone’s devilish slink on “X Is a Machine.” How is Zone going to get his Cadillac when he’s giving away his A-game like this? “Machine” is mixtape perfection: Zone’s chopped strings and loping drums and tricksy refrains matching Sadat’s whimsy perfectly, and the track sees one of the best lines on the record -- “Don’t you hate it when a n!gga try to throw you a bone? / What he could do for me? / Just shake my hand n!gga stop fronting / You was never like that / I can’t believe this dude / You serious? / I’m not walking next to you / You’re a candidate for a hate crime…I can’t rap for free / but if I feel you I’ll work within your budget frame / Just never disrespect my name.” This song is perfect, a full album of this combination would be perfection, and I hope Sadat’s getting perfect beat tapes over the next year.

Elsewhere Grand Puba sounds like he’s wilting before our very ears on “Chosen Few.” Asmatik brings a simple, contemplative snap to some descending keys and turns the beat into solid B-grade NY stuff circa AZ’s Doe or Die, which is a compliment. Scotty Blanco’s “Untraceable” misses everything, and Greg Nice’s vocals do their own studio effects on “My Mind,” which breaks the Cash Converters mic, and strains the inputs on the 4-track. And despite all that the song beats the odds with the gulliest beat on the album, so gully, in fact, that 1) I’m actually using that word, and 2) it sounds like it was produced by DJ Qualls at Terrence Blanchard’s house:

So the record is spotty, and Sadat gets what he paid for, but the mixed bag of production is offset by one of the greatest voices in rap to ever have to skimp on beats. In the end, the balancing act works in the listener’s favour and, in addition, has the tangent benefit of showing that Sadat X can pretty much rap on anything and survive the outcome. Having proven that, the only question now is whether he can avoid getting washed up onto G-Unit when he gets out, or if someone who can actually manage an artist is willing to dish out to give the new and improved Sadat X the appropriate venue for the biggest album of his career. Or if anyone has a Cadillac to lease to J-Zone in exchange for twelve beats. (E-mail