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SEVENTH WHEEL
N.W.A. outcast Arabian Prince, reconsidered

: Innovative Life: The Anthology 1984-1989

Desc:CD REVIEW: ARTIST: Arabian Prince
Label:Stones Throw
Format:Compilation
Media:CD
Genre:Recording

He’s right there, between DJ Yella and Ice Cube on the cover of Straight Outta Compton, and you probably never even noticed. Arabian Prince only got one lead on Compton (“Something 2 Dance 2”); he was the second most gifted producer, the third most gifted rapper and he was also the guy who, despite being a founding member, just didn’t fit into the N.W.A. program.

Considering their role as gangsta pioneers, it’s hard to wipe away the fog of 20 years of progress and remember that N.W.A. got its start – as most hip-hop crews did back then – as a collective of party DJs. Dr. Dre and Yella cut their teeth in the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, a group managed by Jerry Heller, who also oversaw the career of the Egyptian Lover and C.I.A. (Cru in Action, featuring Ice Cube) and would go on to start Ruthless Records with Eazy-E. Arabian Prince was a member of Uncle Jamm’s Army, another Los Angeles party collective, with Egyptian Lover, which probably brought him to Heller’s attention as he and Eazy were putting N.W.A. together.

But it was hardly an ideal union. A seventh member proved excessive, even for N.W.A. (The addition of the D.O.C. provided the final shove for Arabian.) With Ice Cube, MC Ren and Eazy-E showing far more facility on the mic – yes, even Eazy-E was a better rapper than Arabian – and Dre masterfully handling the group’s production work, there was little room left for Arabian Prince to shine. Plus, the hard-edged direction N.W.A. was undertaking was a clean break from their past as party-rockers.

As his name suggests, Arabian Prince was about making 808s boom with a purple lasciviousness that was more “D.M.S.R.” than “Fuck tha Police.” This collection of his sporadic mid-’80s work as both a solo artist and collaborator demonstrates that he was plainly aping the style of his more successful co-soldier in Uncle Jamm’s Army; there’s a greasy electro-sexiness to these cuts that actually manages to out-skeeze the waterbeds-and-pyramids funk of Egyptian Lover. There’s also considerably more sloppiness. The beats on cuts like “Innovator” and “It Ain’t Tough” are all digitally based, but they’re occasionally … wrong. Couple them with Arabian’s stilted vocoder lyrics (and propensity for going “aaaaahhhhh,” just like Egyptian), and it becomes impossible to imagine him being able to collaborate with Dre and Eazy for long. It’s worth noting that the weakest and least interesting cut here, “Panic Zone,” is an early N.W.A track.

But two decades can repaint a reputation in marvelous ways. As singular as Egyptian Lover’s music seemed at the time, it was, in reality, the cream at the top of a tall glass of LA electro-funk. (It’s important to remember that Jerry Heller also managed the “Rockberry Jam”–era LA Dream Team.) The release of this compilation fills in some historical gaps, but more important, given the resurgence of electro-based music in club culture, shows how forward-thinking some of these “weird” artists were at the time. Arabian Prince may have been a shitty rapper, but the production on Innovative Life is a stiff reminder that West Coast hip-hop was once an incubator for daring and provocative ideas.

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