Album Review: Def Jef "Just A Poet With Soul" (1989) (Deluxe CD Reissue)



Order The Expanded Double Disc Deluxe CD Version of Def Jef "Just A Poet With Soul" NOW!!

Def Jef…even in ’89 that named sounded a lil’ Old School, but there was also something new about it…not many MCs had a name that rhymed. It was like he couldn’t help but connect words. That same sentiment can also be applied to much of his music; the production was generally cutting edge or at least a reflection of the times and as far as MCing, he showcased that he could drop punchlines and multi-syllabic phrases with the best of them, but his voice still had tones of 70s Park Jam flavor.

I first became aware of Def Jef via his debut Delicious Vinyl single, “Give It Here” and that could have resulted in me dismissing him entirely. I think I can comfortably say that I didn’t like anything about this song. Musically, the drums sound like they come from a 2nd rate drum machine that’s attempting to sound like live drums (something in the range of Synsonic Drums…to those who know) and the main sample from Peter Brown’s “Dance With Me” comes off a bit corny and seems like it’s desperate for radio play. Speaking of desperate, that’s a fitting adjective for the lyrics too…in multiple levels. It’s Def Jef’s plea to the ladies to give him some shared time, as well as the bonus perks that go along with it. Upon hearing this I wrote him off as another MC who undeservingly snuck in the industry door, willing to write and record whatever pleased some record executive.

It probably wasn’t too much later that I saw his video for “On The Real Tip” and it wasn’t definitely a step in the right direction. However, if I remember correct, I still kind of hated on it... The topic was on the battle rhyme tip and the beat was improvingly stripped down with nice use of Gaz “Sing Sing” and Cheryl Lynn “Got To Be Real”. But, it was just good. He didn’t strike me as an ill MC quite yet. I think I got frustrated because I thought he was trying to go the “lyrical” route only as a result of his commercial attempt on “Give It Here” didn’t pan out… Yes, I was taking my Hip Hop very serious back then…ha.

Thanks to the music video revolution I didn’t completely sleep on his true skills, which he finally started to reveal on his third attempt, “Dropping Rhymes On Drums”. Hearing this was one of those moments that had me thinking, ‘There’s no way that can be the same dude!?!?’ It makes me wonder, on those other songs was he really holding back in a hope to be more accessible or were those songs just older things he had written quite some time ago. In either case, he brought his A-game on this one. Perhaps he was tired of hearing comments like the ones I typed above and this was his redemption. He suggests such when he drops, “He heard Give It Here and had no idea I can get dumb/I be dropping rhymes on drums!” The video effectively highlights his great use of black consciousness intertwined with the battle rhymes. The tempo is high-paced to intensify the punch of the lyrics, but also allows his dance crew, The Soul Brothers to get busy and the video highlights their skills (as well as Def Jef’s own dance prowess) as much as the rhyming. Matter of fact, if the videos opening choreography is any suggestion of what a Def Jef show was like, then he probably had one of the hottest live shows of the time. Of course, you can’t talk about this song with out being impressed by the fact that he locked in Etta James to sing the chorus as well as improv additional stylings behind the verses (she even plays a significant role in the video).

However, that track isn’t the only lyrical highlight on the album. Perhaps my favorite is the slow groove of “Do It Baby”. When it comes in, with what I think is my first witnessing of the amazing Chocolate Milk “Action Speaks Louder Than Words” Sample, you might not immediately expect it to be the lyrical exercise that soon ensues. The beautiful singing of N’dea Davenport* at the opening smoothes things out and it wouldn’t be totally out of place for him to revisit a similar theme from his early singles here.  However, he opts for something a bit more rugged. Arguably, it’s the best technical writing on the album, even over “Dropping Rhymes On Drums”. There are a few pockets of certain flow patterns he hits that are excellent, including the opening, “I do work and I’m working it with the will of a warrior/I’ll take on fifty-four or ya, nah I’ll even take more of ya/Competition is great and keeps me in shape and it’s mentally stimulating/Competitors constantly contemplating challenge/Champion’s written all on my face and I’m smirking/& lurking back in the back, attacking & hacking & jacking/Smacking the losers that’s lacking characteristics of poets/They blow it, trying to show it/Yo, it don’t flow and they know it, so it/Compels me to step in, release the rhymes that I kept in/case of an urgent emergency then these words’ll be weapons…” That was just about us well structured as a rhyme got at the time and he had other moments comparable thru out the song.

Nothing else on the album reaches that same level of lyricism, so I took those two tracks as a heeding of what was to come. However, there are still some other moments of interest on the album. The truth is that it’s a bit all over the place, but it’s at least doing most of those things well.

Even the instrumental House Dance track, which was all but mandatory circa ‘89/’90 on a Rap album, is well produced. I’ll be honest with you, reviewing this album today is most likely the first time I even bothered to listen to this song in it’s entirety. Had he rhymed on it, I would have listened just to see what he did with it, but as an instrumental it didn’t seem necessary for me to listen. Listening now, I feel like it’s a fairly authentic sounding Soulful House track. The primary difference is that rather than maintaining  the same minimal sound thru the whole track per usual of  most House tracks I’m familiar with,  as the song goes on some additional layers and sounds are introduced to keep it interesting. I imagine I’d definitely include it on a best of Hip House Mixtape.

“Black To The Future” keys in on his conscious views, but isn’t quite as engaging as it should be. I admit part of the reason was I might have been a little burnt out on some of the subject matter in songs of this manner at the time. I considered/consider myself a positive person who is also looking for positive changes in the community and the all people, but there were some ideas that were becoming increasingly popular that I wasn’t quite fully in line with. Additionally, the beat is just perfectly average, there’s nothing particularly exciting about it. Luckily, this song was also on a single (which I find a strange choice, at least they touched all the bases on the single picks). The Remix version gives this song a fresh breathe of new life. The lyrics are the same and so are the “Synthetic Substitution” drums. Yet, they remove the ESG “UFO” samples and the Steve Miller vocal fill-ins and replace them with a fuzzed guitar sample, a few other subtle additions and better song structure. I suppose the revolution is a bit more convincing when dressed up a little better…ha.

“Downtown” keeps the thinking cap on and paints a mental picture of the grim reality of the inner cities. I think the highlight here is his story of riding the bus and missing his stop and ending up on the other side of town. He’s in awe of the clean streets, green grass and overall presentation of it all. He doesn’t put the blame elsewhere for his less appealing environment, but immediately places the ownership of change on those who live there,  “In my neighborhood there’s not enough unity to clean up the community/But, collectively if we took responsibility it would be a better place to be!”

“Poet With Soul” is another one that would’ve kept The Soul Brothers flexing some moves, as Def Jef simultaneously comes off nicely on the rhymes. It’s not quite as fluid or densely packed as “Dropping Rhymes…” but it’s still solid. He tries some different patterns that are often accented by creative drum breakdowns. This was the final single for this album and the 12” offered a few new versions. One of which is a forgettable House version. However, the “More Soul” mix adds some extra break-beats and stabs that make this the preferred mix of the song.

This CD reissue includes a bonus disc that has all the remixes that I’ve been mentioning above, plus some other treats. Most notable is the B-Side cut “Phunky AZ Phuck.”** This was a great example of how his skills were continually improving and showcases him rocking impressive verses along-side his lyrically adept DJ, Erick Vaan. The beat is great also and so it’s a bonus they also offern an instrumental. They actually include a decent amount of the album’s instrumentals, many of which are a great listen on their own.

“Just A Poet With Soul” is a solid debut from an artist who was still developing, exercising his options, and fine-tuning his talents. On it’s own I wouldn’t be as vocal about checking out it out, but with this additional second disc it sweetens the deal, making it well worth peeping.

In closing, I think it’s safe to assume that Delicious Vinyl believed in Def Jefor just really liked him as a person, because none of his tracks from this album became the hits that the label was starting to be accustomed too (a la Tone Loc and Young MC), but he still managed to drop five 12” singles for this album. Their belief in him led to a second album a few years later, “Soul Food”. By then his skills had greatly grown as a lyricist and producer and he focuses on all of his strengths, making it the true testament of his abilities. Hopefully, Delicious Vinyl will do an expanding deluxe release for “Soul Food” with the instrumentals, B-sides, and remixes. That would be something I would consider I must-have…

Written By Kevin Beacham, “A Disbeliever Turned True Believer And Fan”

-Editor’s Notes:

*I wonder if Def Jef brought N’dea Davenport to Delicious Vinyl, which lead to her work with Brand New Heavies…hmmm

**I mentioned this track and Def Jef in general in my Devastatin’ Of Funkytown Pros interview HERE!

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