Album Review: Just-Ice “Back To The Old School” (1986)



Last week’s special look at Boogie Down Productions/KRS One inspired me to do something similar with Just-Ice. Over the last couple years his first 4 albums have all been made available back in print on CD. We’ll take an in-depth look at each album + more all week!

In 1986 I had recently moved to North Chicago, IL and was trying to quickly make the proper connections to stay current with the all the new Hip Hop. This was a critical and busy time, I could NOT afford to miss anything! Enter DJ Gerald*. We had a discussion about Hip Hop in class one day and I discovered he not only had all the new 12” singles, but also a full DJ set up. I was able to parlay that to inviting myself to his house for him to make me a personal tape. Among the songs used to make that tape I can only remember 3 for sure and they were all by one man…Just-Ice.

Just-Ice had just burst onto the scene with an action-packed 3-song single on Fresh Records. The A-Side “Put That Record Back On” was a ill combination of meticulously programmed beats, courtesy of Mantronik, well-timed and executed bursts of edits, the technical and raw Human Beatbox skills of The Original DMX, and Just-Ice’s perfect balance of Old School flavor and New School approach. The heavy hi-hat is almost hypnotizing until you are snapped back to reality by the intense machine gun edited snares of Chep Nunez. This song always blew me away.

[audio:|titles=07 Put That Record Back On]

However, most people were more attracted to the B-Side cuts. On both tracks, there are undoubtedly strong hints of Slick Rick’s flavor from “La Di Da Di” and “The Show” sprinkled in, but you can still hear Just-Ice representing his personal touch. This was the era of rising popularity for Human Beatbox tracks with focused lyrics on the subject of women, often of an explicit nature. “Latoya” was pretty clean cut, but it outlines a story of revenge when Just-Ice feels disrespected. Although content-wise he’s a bit overly aggressive in his plot, stylistically he is elegant.

Clearly by the title you are pre-warned “This Girl Is A Slut” is explicit in nature. However, before they get into that situation, they take a minute and a half to let The Original DMX flex his Human Beatbox skills and Just-Ice even throws a jab at Biz Markie by calling him a “Fake MC”, who starts the party wrong. Then they get down to the business of the song title with the when, where, and why of it all. Personally, I was never all that impressed with songs like this, I was far more intrigued and drawn to the showcasing of lyrical styles on a higher level, so I gravitated to the A-Side. However, for the vast majority, the allure of sex, shock value, and drama are completely magnetic, so Just-Ice became an underground favorite.

Fresh Records quickly responded with an 8-song album (including 2 songs from the above single) produced by Mantronik. The album front artwork is iconic and one of the first covers I remember spending time looking at in great detail. It’s credited to Gemini & Gnome (a.k.a Craftwork Kings) and is an excellent cartoon based Graf piece depicting Just-Ice, The Original Human Beatbox DMX, Mantronik (Roland TR-909 in hand), and even Latoya. For a nice extra touch there’s hand tags all over the background with song lyrics, song titles, shout outs, etc… The back cover gives a more personal look at the men behind the music with a series of photographs, including Just-Ice with his Boom Box, named Buster.

The bar is set high right off the top with “Cold Gettin’ Dumb”. It kicks in with a heavy and dusty break-beat sound until Just-Ice suggests, “Yo, change the pace”. From there it breaks down into surgically chopped bits and pieces of bass and snare, with menacing drum rolls and a pleasantly distracting cowbell. Vocally, it’s a perfect example of the essence Just-Ice embodied for Hip Hop: Old School traditions, refined vocabulary, commanding and intimidating presence, and an impeccable flow.

He immediately reveals that everything doesn’t need to be hardcore with “Love Story”. Even though the theme is lighter and voice takes a softer tone, the beat knocks hard as ever with heavy Roland TR-808 bass and Roland TR-909 (?) tom toms. Just-Ice spends the next 5 minutes pouring out his heart to and about the woman of his desire. Actually, I can’t think of many Hip Hop songs from this era that captured this subject so accurately. He’s approach grows from pleas and pain to anger and frustration and ultimately confusion, which mix all the emotions into a toxic potion. I admit that I didn’t really pay this song much attention back in the day. If I had, I would have recognized that Just-Ice also succeeded in another area where many others failed. He didn’t resort to simplifying his style or pulling back on the lyrical content for the love song. It’s packed with elevated vocab and a few shining lyrical moments better than some MCs battle rhymes. The 2nd verse opens with a strong painted picture, “Really all of the pain has took a turn for the worst/I feel anger and bitter, not really hurt/I ask, keep up my picture just to remember me/Even if it’s not real, just a facsimile/Of life and the body of Just/A Photogenic pose that might turn to dust.”

I actually revisited this song after being inspired to by MF Doom. When we were preparing to release his MM…Food record, we spoke to DOOM about key influences and he referenced Just-Ice, which wasn’t a surprise. Yet, when he stated “Love Story” in particular as a key song, that caught me off guard…why that one? MF Doom spoke of the creative phrasing that Just-Ice used in the song, particularly this line, “(We) embrace in a passion that’s tighter than a knot/The impact was heavy, it sounded like a rock”.
[audio:|titles=02 Love Story]

The album’s title track, “Back To The Old School”, is as literal as they come. Mantronik drops a Drum Machine composed break-beat using some sample stabs and Old School styled scratching. Meanwhile, Just-Ice takes you back to MCing circa ’77 and hosts the affair, armed with some freestyled catch phrases and a powerful Echo Chamber.

Just-Ice does generally get his credit, alongside KRS One, for popularizing Reggae in Hip Hop, but generally it’s referencing his 1987 release Kool & Deadly [Produced by KRS One]. People tend to forget or neglect to mention that a year previous he had “Little Bad Johnny”, with the tale of a kid on the wrong life path and features Just’s smooth ragga style singing on the hook**.

In many ways the most impactful song on that album might be “Gangster Of Hip Hop”. It’s often wins him credit for bringing the idea of Gangsterism into Hip Hop. Although, it wasn’t the first time the word was use or the imagery was invoked, it certainly was an influential turning point***. It definitely had and impact on me. In ’86, I would get up every morning extra early and drive my parents to work so I could take the family van to school. I would scoop up my crew and we would troop to school and “EVERY” morning for months on end, we played “Original Gangster Of Hip Hop” multiple times for the trip!

The beat is primarily based on The Original DMX’s Human Beatbox skills, but Mantronik adds some additional touches to give some extra flair. Listening to it now, I don’t think I even thought about how sexually explicit it was. I wasn’t really focused on that, it was all about his style, self-assurance, hardened nonchalant-ness, & refined dialect.

The first two verses stay rooted in R Rated sentiments and masculine boasts, but from there then he goes into full battle mode, “Then switch around the answer, bring it right to the top/Sir Vicious Just-Ice, the Gangster Of Hip Hop/I use a rhyme for a gun, intellect for a bullet/And my nasty, crafty ways will execute it to the fullest/Commence to say a rhyme and other suckers will log it/Because the freshest s**t you wrote was a heap of stink garbage”.

He comes in on the last verse strong as ever, “I exceed prodigies of the highest degrees/Or Plateaus, so you that know I’m the epitome/Of words and lyrics that opposers are against/The master of a phrase and the king of sentence/Clear as a crystal or hazy like a blur/If you don’t know my name, I think you better call me sir/You address me with respect, now your feeling are suspicious/Precise Just-Ice, another word for vicious/Get up on the mic, then I reach my peak/It might take 4 days or even a week/I’m fresh as ice or tender as a kiss/You can say Just-Ice or say Justice/I’m exhalted, pressing, ruler of my empire/And with my skills I’ll move a level higher/Check yours steps, be sure you don’t front/Cause the way that you rhyme you ain’t nothing but a puppy punk/Going do my thing and coming straight from the heart/Interject my song and leave my trademark/Cause I’m gangster and you’re not/You’re a sucker and I rock…”
Then he drops into some reggae flavored singing and BAM it’s done. You are hard-pressed to a better Hip Hop vocal performance in ’86.

The album closes with “Turbo Charged” which is essentially like a “Put The Record Back On” Part Two, with the tempo picked up a bit and minus the Human Beatbox. It also reveals one of Mantronik’s only short-coming as a producer, sometimes the MCs voices got buried in the beats. It’s quite unfortunate here as it’s definitely one of Just Ice’s greatest vocal performances on the record. In the last few bars he picks up the pace of the swift flow and ends the album on his best showcasing of vocal dexterity on the LP. All of that makes it the best song candidate for a remix****.

That particular remix never happened, but many would probably excuse that due to the 12” treat that was “Cold Gettin’ Dumb Part II”. The funny thing is that it’s not really super different from the original, but the subtle changes, new mixdown, and Just-Ice relaying the verse with more clarity makes it almost sound like a new track. Just-Ice also presents a mixture of the original lyrics with an arsenal of new verbal firepower as well.

One of the highlights of the new lyrics is how he strings together a series of song titles and lyrical jabs to diss the man known as Kurtis Blow, “You know I’m scheming, now it will be seeming/First you played Basketball, now you’re Daydreaming/What does it take to correct your mistake/Point blank you can’t rhyme, yo, those are The Breaks/But if you wanna hear a fresh rhyme, peep out my line/Not biting no lyrics, cause it is a crime/You know it is with unbelievable measures/How far will you go before correcting your errors/Mind is in a twirl, so what you got a girl/We’d be all messed up if you ruled the world/Sweep off the dirt, concentrating on my work/My gangster style rap will hurt…jerk/Flirt with flamboyancy, please stop annoying me/Selling the elite, top choice, extra-ordinary!” He brings the verse to a close with an impressive acronym for Just-Ice, “Justice Universal Self Truth I/Concentrating Energy, never tread on lies”, leading to the final blow, “Gonna reach for my goals, rather lower or higher/You can’t rap you lollipop liar!”

[audio:|titles=09 Cold Gettin' Dumb II]

The CD Reissue includes the original 8-song album plus bonus tracks; “That Girl is Is A Slut” and “Cold Gettin’Dumb II”, so you get the full Just-Ice experience from this time period.
We’ll come back tomorrow and take a look at his Sophmore album, “Kool & Deadly”!!

Written By Kevin Beacham

*That may not have been his real DJ name, but you get the point

** Not to mention, his debut single contained some Ragga Flavor on the bridge of “Latoya”.

***Underground Legends, Trickeration dropped their B-side track “Western Gangstertown” in ’80. The Masterdon Committee had a MC named Gangster G since about ‘79. Plus Double Trouble donned the mafia sites and plastic guns in the early 80s for their Wild Style Movie performance. Those are just a few earlier examples.

****Perhaps Mantronik did it out of spite for Just-Ice’s comment, “Mantronik creates a new context/If it’s not good enough I get my man DMX”…ha. Probably not, but that’s always been my preferred reasoning, purely to amuse myself. In any event, I still regularly dream about Just-Ice re-recording this track to a remixed beat or getting my hands on the acapella to find someone to do it for me… I’m still hoping for that one.

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