This review was done originally in 1994. This album is the remaster of the original, Rooftop Soundcheck.
Kymm Britton and Dee Philipp Binggeli
The infusion of live instruments into the sample-heavy world
of hip hop continues to enliven the evolving art form of rap. Real
guitars, real drums, real voices singing out over a relentless beat --
this is the future of hip hop, and no other band embodies this bold
ideal better than Justice System, six (sometimes seven) musicians
working together to create a unified rap flavor, invigorating a genre
that all too often sounds mechanical and soulless.
Quite a goal for six young men who grew up together in tiny
Greenburgh, New York, forming Justice System some five years ago while
still in high school. But one listen to the band's initial effort,
Rooftop Soundcheck, proves that Justice System has created one of the
liveliest and most exciting debut albums in recent memory, sounding
like a clarion call to the rap community--wake up and dig the new
Justice System's history begins at Woodland High School in
Greenburgh, New York, where in 1990 rappers John "Jahbaz" Dawson and
Tom "Folex" Foley hooked up with longtime friends Chris "Wizard C.
Roc" Nordland and the brothers Alex ("Coz Boogie") and Eric ("Eric
G.") Gopoian to form a band that, as Folex puts it, "would rely on
real people making music and having something to say, and not hiding
it behind DATs and samples." A year later, multi-instrumentalist Alex
"Mo'Better Al" Auld came on board to add some spice to the mix and
help with demos.
The legendary Zulu Nation, a major influence, heard Justice
System's tape and invited the fledgling band to open some of their
shows, where the sextet was introduced to another hero: Afrika
Bambaataa. By this time, Justice System was building a steady
following in Manhattan's downtown club scene, playing sold-out shows
at S.O.B.'s, The Grand and the New Music Cafe. MCA Records caught the
buzz and promptly signed the band on to an exclusive contract.
Thus Rooftop Soundcheck, was born with its moving tribute to
their heroes, called "Dedication to Bambaataa."
Says Jahbaz, "We were listening to people like Curtis
Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Coltrane, Stevie Wonder and Bambaata, and we
were affected by the spirituality in that music. But when we looked
around and saw how many musicians these artists had influenced, and
weren't getting their due, we wanted to correct the situation. Because
it's artists like Bambaataa that set the foundation for all that was
Key tracks from Rooftop Soundcheck, which was produced by
Justice System with help from Eddie Martinez (guitarist for Chic,
Patti LaBelle, Run D.M.C. and others), include "Soul Style," based on
the Langston Hughes poem "Negro Speaks of Rivers," one of the best
explorations of the creative process ever put on the record; "Summer
in the City," the debut 12" and first video (which was shot at night
on the streets of New York City); and "Trouble on My Mind," a song
Folex calls "a breakdown of the last four years in the lifetime of
Justice System. It tells how to watch out for sharks in this business,
and how you have to keep your focus on the music and not get
distracted by people who want to use you."
But the element that sets Justice System apart from the rest
of the hip hop pack is their strength as musicians.
"It's all about takin' it to the stage," says Jahbaz. "You
have to be able to do it live, and this is a real band which doesn't
rely on pre-recorded technology to get its message across. So our
sound is more organic and alive, and when Folex and I are rappin' over
that soulful music behind us, the power is undeniable."
And the power of the sample-free music of Rooftop Soundcheck is
undeniable. One listen, and you'll stay for the show.