Sir Mix-A-Lot – “Swass”

Now buttermilk biscuits,
Here we go,
Sift the flower
Roll the dough.
— “Buttermilk Biscuits”

Wait, what?  Yes, that’s right – a hip hop album that opens with a tribute to buttermilk biscuits.

In 1988 I wasn’t into hip hop.  I had the obligatory couple of Run-DMC albums, Raising Hell and Tougher Than Leather, but that was more or less it.  But my friend Brent was a big hip hop fan, having moved to Seattle from Philly, and the heavy beats quickly made their way onto the cassette decks of our group of friends when we hung out on weekends.  And that is how I discovered Seattle’s own hip hop master, Sir Mix-A-Lot.  I’m pretty sure it was our friend Mike who insisted I play it in my Mustang stereo when we were driving to school one day.  I was hooked I had my own copy of the cassette in short order.

Mix-A-Lot is of course famous, nay infamous, for his mega-hit, Grammy-winning single “Baby Got Back,” but four years before that song blew up he released his first album, the cryptically named Swass.  The earliest versions consisted of 11 songs, but by time it was released on CD the tracklist had increased to 14.  Regardless of the version you may have, though, the best material is in those original 11 early songs.

Many a Friday or Saturday night started with me picking up the guys (known amongst ourselves as “the posse” for reasons that will become evident in a moment) and all five of us cramming into my ’84 silver Mustang to cruise Bellevue, listen to music, and play video games at the various bowling alleys in town.  And invariably one of the songs played on that Mustang sound system was “Posse on Broadway.”  Cranked to 11.

Cruisin’ Broadway and my wheels spin slow,
Rollin’ with your posse is the only way to go.
— “Posse on Broadway”

Posse up!

Swass is one of those soundtrack of my life kind of albums, one strongly pegged to a very specific time and place with a very specific group of people and shared experiences.  I associate it with hangin’ with my high school friends and having great times, at a time in our lives when the future seemed wide open and full of possibilities, but what really mattered was what was happening right then, that night, that exact moment.  Smoking Swisher Sweet cigars at the park, playing vids at the bowling alley, skateboarding, and all of us crashing in someone’s basement.

But Swass isn’t a one-trick pony, at least not to me, though it is a strange album.  It includes a number of “joke” tracks, completely ridiculous songs like “Buttermilk Biscuits,” “Square Dance Rap,” and my favorite “Bremalo,” the ode to large women from the city of Bremerton located just a short ferry ride away from downtown (Bremerton + buffalo = Bremalo).

Now Bremerton’s a city right outside of mine,
Most girls there are ducks but a few are fine,
But the ones that I speak about use their face for catchin’ trout,
Vacuum cleaners for a mouth,
You know what I’m talkin’ ’bout.
— “Bremalo” 

The late 80s had its share of funny hip hop tracks, and I know I had Bobby Jimmy and The Critters’ 1990 Hip Hop Prankster, which was basically one continuous joke.  And while I still laugh at songs like “Bremalo,” I think that’s something best left in the past – we don’t need a revival, though Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” is an amazing, and smart, exception.

Swass contains an example of early heavy metal/hip hop fusion with the song “Iron Man” that Mix recorded with Seattle rockers Metal Church.  The song is built on the riff of the Black Sabbath song of the same name, though that’s the only similarity between the two as Mix-a-Lot raps about how bad-ass he is.  The CD version also includes a re-recorded version of this track, “Iron Man (True Metal Meltdown Mix)” that really isn’t that different other than being a bit flashier and changing the verse “got an ’87 Vette with a fat gas pedal” to “got an ’88 Vette with a fat gas pedal.”  Don’t think that Mix doesn’t always have the newest Vette!  Another of my favorites is “Gold,” which samples heavily from N.W.A.’s “Dopeman,” and is a tale of Mix and his posse out buying gold and trying not to get robbed.

Mix does have a few of the standard “I’m tough and I’ll beat your ass or shoot you” songs that were so prolific during the era, notably like “Hip Hop Soldier” and one of the CD bonus tracks, “F the BS” – though even with a song called “F the BS” Mix stops short of actually using profanity.  It was a different time.  You could sing about beat downs and killing.  Just don’t swear, man.  We need to protect the children.

The funny thing in listening to Swass again today is realizing how many songs I used to (and I guess still do) routinely skip over – there are 14 song on this CD, but while I’ve easily listened to “Posse on Broadway” hundreds of times, I couldn’t have told you anything at all about how “Rippin'” or “Attack on the Stars” sounded without playing them.  I pretty much had my favorites, and those were the songs I played.  “Posse on Broadway,” “Gold,” “Iron Man,” and “F the BS,” are the only ones that even made it to my iPod, and basically I don’t know or even remember half this album.  Weird.

I remember buying Mix-A-Lot’s next three albums as well, and there were some great songs on those records – “My Hooptie,” “Swap Meet Louie,” and “Just Da Pimpin’ In Me” among my favorites.  If you only know Mix-A-Lot from “Baby Got Back,” you really should go back and at least check out some of the tracks on Swass.  It’s a bit dated, but if you’re of a certain age like me, it will still resonate and it’ll take you back to a time when your life was simpler, and so were the raps.

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