There are distinct watershed moments for the average hip-hop listener of a certain age:
- The first time you heard NWA, Straight Outta Compton.
- The moment you realized Illmatic was completely flawless.
- Hearing Wu-Tang on the most grimy, backpacking-est kid’s discman in a smoke-filled high-school bathroom, while you worried you might get knifed by some delinquent who only came to school to sell nickel bags.
- The night you listened to Paul’s Boutique while tripping on mushrooms and nothing has been that cool since.
At a certain point, as much as you want to love the ASAP crew stuff and keep up with every goddamned Maybach CMB mixtape, it’s all just too much. Too hard to listen to if you have kids and don’t want to spend time contemplating the perils of glorifying poverty, gun-violence, misogyny and the number of other transgressions that hip-hop commits on the regular.
As a dad, I can’t (or am unwilling) to go through the depressing mental gymnastics anymore to justify listening to Eminem talk about how much he loves his daughter in one song and how, in another song, a character who is his “alter-ego” is going to rape a girl. The hollowness of rappers praising their mothers or parents in a rap, juxtaposed with Marquis de Sade-esque nastiness in the following song just doesn’t work for me anymore.
I’m old and uncool. I know that, dickhead.
So, naturally, when I go hunting for hip-hop to listen to, I usually end up sticking with sturdy old nostalgia. I can forgive the dichotomies contained in older rap songs and albums because with great art, time hones the rough edges and blurs out the logical discord, leaving only a smooth beach-rock of music. While not as aesthetically striking now as when it was first hewed from the cliff-side back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the nostalgic choice is far more soothing underfoot.
The Mudkids are one of those perfectly shaped stones that will skip across the surface of my mind, making beautiful circles without ever disturbing the disgusting layers of sludge and medical waste that lie at the bottom of my cerebral lake.
The particulars of the years I spent listening to the Mudkids and going to their shows would be boring to even the most dedicated of hip-hop heads. Let a short list of bands I saw them open for be some kind of an indicator of their merit and their place in Indiana and Midwestern regional hip-hop from 1996-2009:
Run-DMC (JMJ still on the decks.)
Souls of Mischief
Formed in Indianapolis circa 1995. Style is generally characterized as underground hip-hop, conscious rap, or some other label indicating they don’t often, or ever, use the N-word or the phrase “bitches and hoes.”
Russell Johnson, aliases: MC Choc SoReel, Rusty Redenbacher, Lazarus, Danja Russ, etc. (Vocals)
Tyler Knapp, alias: Elp-Mass. (DJ and Producer)
Various side-men and DJs throughout the years: Gnosis, Dickey Fox, Big Skittz, DJ Helicon, et al.
While the Mudkids aren’t technically defunct or broken-up, they play together only on extremely rare occasions and haven’t dropped a recording under the Mudkids banner in several years. I hope there is a future where the Mudkids continue to perform and record, but if not, well, you know what they say about Paris.
As the premier hip-hop outfit in Indianapolis for more than a decade, the ‘Kids were the most reliably fun, compelling, and polished rap group the city had to offer. Often, they played shepherd to up-and-comers who were making their way through the midwest, giving them a chance to open for an established draw. Rhymefest guested on their album before he was a thing. Russ Johnson, the primary MC for the Mudkids, once battled Slim Shady at Scribble Jam (‘98 or so?) and lost. It was Eminem’s year, basically the last battle Em competed in, and nobody was voting against the great white hope. Russ’s verse was better, though, better by miles.
Complex lyrics, truly impressive and improvisational freestyle, and exceptionally well-done live shows (a rare thing in small venue hip-hop) were always the Mudkids’ strengths. They weren’t the best at writing catchy hooks or making radio-ready beats, they were there to please underground hip-hop fans and people who bought tickets at the door. And both of those things they did very well, well-enough that I still listen to them today. I’ll throw in 4Trackmind or Higher as I drive my sensible car and my kids won’t even roll their eyes. Maybe I’m hipper than I thought? Probably not.
1996 - Mash It Up EP
1997 - 4Trackmind
1999 - Upwards
2001 - Higher
2006 - Basementality
2009 - MKEP
Ghost Before You Know It (Feat. Rhymefest)
Mash It Up
Other Fun Stuff:
Russ goes first on this one.
If you stuck with me this far, I’ll detail my favorite memory of the Mudkids. Other than any one of a number of truly spectacular concerts, their appearance on a local radio show in 1998, right at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, sticks with me to this day. My sister recorded the spot on a cassette tape, which I still have in storage somewhere. The host asked them to freestyle, and when they asked for a topic, he took a phone call from a listener who responded simply, “Bill Clinton.” Russ’s verse was one of the best non pre-written, truly off-the-dome freestyles I’ve ever heard. It was done to the instrumental of Timbaland and Magoo’s, “Luv 2 Luv Ya,” which if you don’t stretch each lyrical line to two bars, like Tim does, is a pretty up-tempo track. I can’t say the whole thing from memory anymore but I remember some great bits:
...I keep it on the President Bill Check it, ‘cause I got to grab the microphone and do what I will
Yo, I got the skill with the steel
And I know you feel me,
Not like Hilary,
Cause you ain’t getting none tonight
Getting done tonight
I grab the microphone and run it mad tight,
Like, um, Desmond Howard last year in the Super Bowl
My super flow will play you out like Bill Clinton, the super hoe.
Like Scott LaRock, my name is Choc,
Grab the microphone and have you like Monica, on my jock.
Got interns wanting a turn to burn
But I don’t give ‘em what they earn, or they deserve
From the man from the Bird
And the kid from the Mud
You’re getting smoked just like some bud,
Step-back ‘cause I’m about to blow up like a SCUD.
Got no time for Hussein,
Check it, ‘cause I got this girl on my thang
And she’s mad lame,
‘Cause she’s telling everybody how I got it
Rocked the body like a shotty
But yo, she’s getting snotty.
21-years-old, in my, um, sector
Had to wreck ya
Check the lecture
It’s the texture
Ribbed, plus the classic,
Check it out one time for your mind
I only cheat if you counting oral,
When I’m on the mic I keep it mad floral,
You can smell the aroma, making you sleep just like a coma...
The rest of it I don’t recall. I know this probably doesn’t read well and there are probably better freestyles out there. Heck, I’ve probably witnessed some. But the genuine improvisational agility of those 12 or so bars was fucking astounding to hear dropped live, on the radio. Not a single curse-word, but the verse completely dissects a political sex-scandal that seemed like it was still happening, in a rhyme composed and spoken in real time. I was already a Mudkids fan, but this verse made me an acolyte.
EDIT: I found the cassette and ripped that thing quick before it popped. Here’s the freestyle in question. Russ’s first verse is good. His second, which starts at 1:37 is, despite my previous equivocation, actually the greatest freestyle I’ve ever heard. It’s unparalleled. @rustymk2 is the GOAT.