Looking back on an unsung alt-rap classic three decades ahead of its time
What happens when you’re ahead of your time, but your time eventually comes and goes without you?
Such is the fate of Michigan-based musician Me Phi Me. (Confusingly Me Phi Me is used interchangeably as both the individual rapper and as the name of his band; for the purposes of this review, we shall use it to refer to the rapper and vocalist.) He would make a name for himself in the late 80s and early 90s as a hip-hop artist with a twist: his songs were infused with acoustic guitars.
His material also differed in that he eschewed the trappings of hardcore rap; rather, he wrote songs dealing with inner growth, positivity, self-love and spiritual improvement. His utilized his moniker—based on a joke name relating to fraternities—for a conceptual fraternity inspired by the frat culture of historically Black fraternities, one dedicated to the principles of his songs.
After signing to RCA in 1991, he recorded his debut album ONE, released thirty years ago this winter. ONE is loosely built around this imaginary fraternity, connected by several short skits that feature stomping, call-and-response, and lectures throughout the album. (Aside from the surreal “Poetic Moment 1: The Dream” and Last Poets-style chant of “Poetic Movements II: The Streets,” these sketches are inessential and break the flow of the album.)
ONE fits nicely into the conscious / alternative hip-hop niche carved out by P.M. Dawn and Arrested Development. Me Phi Me has a smooth flow similar to Q-Tip, Posdnuos, Speech and Prince Be. Throughout the album, the acoustic guitar is given equal importance as the beats. This gives the album a unique sound; for instance, the gorgeous “Dream Of You” starts off with a gentle strum that wouldn’t sound out of place next to the mellower numbers from Pearl Jam and Freedy Johnston, but then the song transforms into a gorgeous rap propelled by a beat that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on 3 Feet High And Rising. It’s hip-hop with a rap, but its sound transcends the genre; it’s a romantic ballad with a pop hook that still sounds positively unique three decades later.
(A personal aside: many moons ago yours truly once spoke to Blessid Union Of Souls frontman Eliot Sloan that I always thought of Me Phi Me when I heard his song “Hey Leonardo.” “You are absolutely not the first person to say that to me!” he responded with a laugh. Sloan said he dug his album.)
The rest of the album fits this formula of blending disparate styles and arrangements. “Not My Brotha” is a blues/hip-hop hybrid of the sort that Beck would make his own two years later; in 1992, though, it sounds positively unique. The song—a blues number that rejects the notion that he should share “brotherhood” with drug dealers, gangsters, and misogynists—draws a radical line in the sand for his community. Then there’s “Black Sunshine,” which leads with an acoustic riff similar to The Black Crowes’ “She Talks To Angels” and offers up lyrics that tell of a homeless man finding peace amid the despair and sadness of his surroundings. The song also incorporates the chorus to “I Can See Clearly Now” to good effect. “And I Believe” offers vocal accompaniment by Ladysmith Black Mambazo and sounds otherworldly.
ONE’s lead single was “Sad New Day” and it’s understandable; it’s the album’s most commercial-sounding song. For a new artist, the single achieved some modest success, charting at #60 on the Hot 100. RCA brought in legendary video director Julien Temple to produce its video; the song would be in regular rotation on 120 Minutes. Temple would also direct videos for “Black Sunshine” and “Pu’ Sho Hands 2Getha,” but neither single performed as well as “Sad New Day.”
And despite all the positive elements the album had to offer, upon release, ONE sank without a trace.
Although there’s scant information online about Me Phi Me and their major label tenure, one can make an educated guess as to what happened to the relationship between him and RCA. It’s easy to envision the main problem: label confusion about how to market the record. One can see the label’s urban department being put off by the obtuse lyrics and acoustic guitar and finding it too alternative for them to market. Yet one can easily see the label’s alternative department being put off as well, finding the rapping and skits and Afrocentric vibe too urban for them to market. Though such barriers are almost nonexistent now, major labels often gave artist short shrift if they didn’t fit comfortably in their predetermined genres, often causing truly talented artists to languish.
Yet perhaps Me Phi Me was a victim of bad timing. Had ONE been released two years earlier, it’s not hard to see it fitting in nicely with the Native Tongues movement that brought success to A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Del The Funky Homosapien. Had it been released a few months later, it’s possible it could have benefited from the success of fellow travelers Arrested Development, Common, and Digable Planets.
Then again, it’s possible ONE’s fate might not have benefited from any of this, and that the trajectory into obscurity would be the same.
Nowadays, acoustic guitars in hip-hop are commonplace, and listening to ONE thirty years later, one can only listen to the album and wonder how such a fantastic, intelligent, and thoughtful record slipped through the cracks. Sadly, Me Phi Me slipped into the ether of the forgotten; though he maintains an online Twitter account, outside of songs he contributed to the soundtracks of Reality Bites and Strange Days, he’s released no new music since ONE. And though it is sad ONE marks Me Phi Me’s only contribution to the music world, it matters not.
ONE is a lovely jewel of an album ripe for rediscovery, a record that shines and sparkles not because of its obscurity, but in spite of it.
VIDEO: Me Phi Me “Sad New Day”