Few would deny the inclusion of Large Professor in the pantheon of hip-hop producers. From the beginnings of his early-'90s group Main Source (and their classic 1991 album, Breaking Atoms), to recent work with old friend and one-time protégé NaS, Large Pro has been a reliable force in hip-hop for over a decade.
After Breaking Atoms, and his discovery of young guns Nasty Nas and Akinyele, Large P went on to produce one-third of the now-classic street tableau, Illmatic. He's had sporadic success a Gang Starr remix here, a solo 12-inch there but nothing more than fleeting in our here-today, gone-today culture.
Back in 1993, on A Tribe Called Quest's "Keep It Rollin'," Large Professor assuredly proclaimed "Queens represent, buy the album when I drop it." Nine years, a botched-and-buried Geffen release fittingly titled The LP and a series of random guest shots later, his first true solo album, 1st Class, drops. And from all places, it comes from the indie hearth of Matador Records, home to such idiosyncratic rockers as Yo La Tengo, Cat Power, Guided by Voices and now-defunct slacker gods Pavement. The Mad Scientist is certainly a strange addition to the roster.
Words have never been Lo Pro's forte. And in the past his chunky baritone has seemed out of place next to more refined lyricists such as Q-Tip and Rakim. Not much has changed there. While almost always associating himself with respectable and socially conscious MCs, he still delivers unremarkable, boastful rhymes. On the lame and disappointing "'Bout That Time," Professor lazily barks "I'ma be that fella, with the mozzarella, always cookin' up the new hot seller."
But when it comes to beats and sounds, well, now we're talkin'! The tripped-out intergalactic kazoo that kaleidoscopes through "The Ultimate" is unlike anything in hip-hop today. Layered over insistent, thumping strings, the song reminds me of a coked-out symphonic orchestra. It's easy to ignore boring lyrics with beats like these. Thankfully, guests show up quick and prove why Large Professor had so much success collaborating with superior MCs.
Strings abound again on the atmospheric brag-fest, "Stay Chisel," featuring NaS, who fluidly rhymes "I'm lookin' sharp for the peoples, not in my physical form, strong thoughts, I'm cock-diesel" over a thick bassline (and leaving the Professor with only one pathetic verse at the end of the song). Quick-kick snare hits suit Akinyele's rapid-fire spitting on a song named after the "Put It in Your Mouth" pariah. Q-Tip even shows up out of hibernation, and shelves his new boho-from-BK persona to drop lyrical knowledge circa '94. "I never thought I'd see the day when brothers pledge allegiance, to a red white and blue that's wavin' untrue, yo where's the 40 acres and a mule, huh, you'd rather give us Mickey D's and a two, huh," Tip waxes while his erstwhile partner spins an ethereal chant record over a slick breakbeat.
Other gems include jazz-tinged "Kool," which utilizes an early flute sample to create a chilled-out declaration of skill. As with most songs featuring merely Large Professor, the subject matter is limited to bigheaded assertions. It's too bad. He spoils transcendent beats with bland crowing.
The tribal rhythms and quick-lipped Busta Rhymes floetics of "On" are reminiscent of Busta's own "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See." And old-school breakbeats and piano loops highlight the repetitive but bouncy, and paradoxically named, "Brand New Sound."
Large Professor would have been better served to release an instrumental LP of straight bangers, or to let his more verbally and lyrically astute friends handle the rapping. He's always been a production wizard, and that remains his strong suit. When class is in session, Extra P is better off teaching musical wisdom and leaving the street science to the true MCs.