E-Rule “Listen Up”

Stream: Erule “Listen Up”

When I hear E-Rule’s “Listen Up” I am reminded of De La Soul’s “Breakadawn” ((I recently wrote a piece on “Breakadawn” as well.)) and vice-versa. Both songs simultaneously groove, glide, and thump. They sound great side by side, and I frequently add them to playlists intended for the morning commute, summer cookouts, or lazy weekend afternoons. Both songs are dominated by a combination of lush and incandescent sounds that evoke the promise associated with morning, draw samples and melodies from sources that are themed around sunlight and daybreak, and feature lyrics that allude to the concept of rejuvenation.

In different hands, these elements might have been assembled into R&B-ish singles suitable  for frequent daytime radio play. However, their insistent drum patterns and fluid, confidently stated rhymes anchor them firmly in the sound that was sought after and well received by listeners of  late night mix shows. ((Ironically, “Listen Up” is somewhat cleaner sounding , possibly because producer King Born oversaw studio musicians replaying a portion of Roy Ayers’s “Everybody Loves The Sunshine” while De La Soul and Prince Paul stacked and looped multiple samples. “Breakadawn” was released by a label with greater distribution and clout  and thus was heard occasionally during daytime hours, while “Listen Up” was more than likely nearly completely confined to late night play.)) After hearing “Listen Up” played so many times on evening college radio I came to associate its sound with the the magic and mystery of dusk, a supernatural time when the alluring city lights came on, the worker bees reclaimed their homes, and the hustlers, artists and assorted rebellious types came out to play.

As a teenager, the utility of a piece of music was less important than the way it stoked my imagination. Although today I am inclined to treat this song as a tool to achieve a desired effect for entertaining mixed company, occasionally I find myself once again transfixed by its beauty, its balance of optimistic and melancholic moods, and Erule’s virtuosic vocal performance.

I first heard “Listen Up” while watching Video Music Box in the spring of 1994, during one of many instances in which Uncle Ralph McDaniels talked for too long over the opening bars of a video to plug some minor club launch. Though I missed the first verse, the video captured my attention and kept me from switching over to Rap City. When Uncle Ralph finally finished speaking I was able to heed Erule’s request, made by proxy in the form of a sample of Latee’s “Wake Up,” to eliminate all distractions and listen attentively. “Listen Up” lived up to the impressionistic accompanying visuals, and I made it my personal mission to hunt down a high quality version.

I couldn’t find a cassingle anywhere and nobody at school seemed to have any helpful information about the song. When I deduced that it was a vinyl-only release, I acquired a crisp dub of the song, along with a dozen or so other vinyl-only gems, from my high school sweetheart’s cousin, who deejayed for one of the hip hop shows on Princeton University’s radio station. I was finally able to enjoy the song in as pure a form as conditions allowed. A few years prior, Brand Nubian flipped a similar excerpt of Roy Ayers’s “Everybody Loves The Sunshine” ((Teddy C.D. recently posted a piece comparing different uses of “Everybody Loves The Sunshine.” There’s a poll in the post too, go and vote.)) for their stirring “Wake Up (Reprise In The Sunshine),” a song I held in such high regard that I was quick to dismiss the attempts of artists like Funkdoobiest to sample the same song as a sign of laziness. But even if I hadn’t enjoyed producer King Born’s interpolation of the Roy Ayers classic, I could not easily or honestly ignore Erule’s style.

Erule’s vocal performance, particularly in the final verse of the song, is so mellifluous that I refrained from attempting to decipher the lyrics for months. The opalescent sounds and entrancing flows convinced me that the song should be appreciated and interpreted on multiple levels. Erule’s West Indian-sounding accent and distinctive phrasing give his vocals the quality of another instrument in the mix. Before I pondered the meaning of a single line I concluded that the song is supposed to act out the interplay between light and dark that occurs at dawn and again at dusk; Erule’s husk, authoritative voice fills the space in between the song’s bright melodic tones. Gradually I came to understand that the structure and content of the lyrics — some of which I admittedly still puzzle over —- reward close listening.

Erule is a student of Rakim and Big Daddy Kane but he writes against a backdrop that sounds as if the sampled funk loops of Marley Marl were recreated with live instruments to approximate the melodic sensibility of Warren G. When he rhymes, he coasts along with the music, allowing the depth of his voice to provide a vivid contrast. He makes sure that each line transitions smoothly into the next and doesn’t make any sudden stops or rely on pauses for effect. His flow is relentlessly rhythmic but never staccato and he lets the drums do all the work of demarcating bars. Though he occasionally indulges in Latinate vocabulary words and multisyllabic rhymes, his unusual syntax and pronunciation ultimately distinguish his style from that of  his predecessors. His lyrics describe the alternating periods of exhilaration and serenity that characterize both an evening expedition in a ’64 impala and the process of writing and mastering new rap styles.

“Listen Up” is more than anything a celebration of the consummate genius that emerges at dawn or dusk to transform his passion for rapping into undeniably beautiful music, a peek into a world where work and play are not diametric opposites, creativity never sleeps. — Thun

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22 Responses to “E-Rule “Listen Up””

  1. done says:

    “came to associate its sound with the the magic and mystery of dusk, a supernatural time when the alluring city lights came on, the worker bees reclaimed their homes, and the hustlers, artists and assorted rebellious types came out to play.”

    im enjoying these posts reminiscing over specific songs and your relationship with them. you should make them a series, theyr really great.

    i dont think anythings going to surpass passin me by and the og it was a good day as my feel good summer songs (the whole superfly soundtrack too) probably cos theyr so connected to my youth but breakadawn, listen up and slow burning 22.5 farenheit hold a special place for me too. its weird how some songs can evoke such strong memories like that, for some reason i always find its the summer-vibe ones more than any others.

    e-rules flow is just amazing on this, coincedentally i always found pos’ on breakadawn to be the closest comparison, maybe breezly brewin’s (who has one of the most original styles ever, dunno why hes not spoken on more) circa 95 too. that continuos delivery where your never sure quite sure where the bars break or what words hel choose to rhyme was mind-blowing to me when i first heard it.

    • Thun says:

      Yes, you’re right, Pos is relentless on “Breakadawn,” something I forgot to mention in that piece, just like I forgot to mention Nas’s delivery in the “Memory Lane” piece. I think with that era I just take it for granted that great songs showcased exceptional vocal abilities. In tis compromised age I’m constantly hearing stuff like Big Krit where the production is magnificent and the emcee is just there.

      Breezly Brewin is another one in the same vein. not quite as virtuosic, but still using that continuous flow were Siah and Yeshua and the Canadian group The Rascalz (prior to their dumbed down “Northern Touch” style).

      • done says:

        cheers, i dont think iv ever heard those il check them out.

        yeah theres certain styles of rapping i miss that no one really progressed any further. all that modern traditionalist boom bap shits so boring to me cos its like 94 styles kept in stasis not taken to its next logical conclusion. which is not a good source of originality and always falls far short of its inspiration anyways cos its too busy lookin back to check if its doing things “the right way” and following the rules, instead of expanding on them and makin new ones.

        probably why most of the interesting new music comes from the bay and south where they dont have the same nostalgic hangups or semi-strict orthodoxy that can limit them. or at least they interpret them differently, respecting their influences principles but not neccisarily aping their styles.

        its starting to appear though, with ppl like KRIT, who as you mentioned isnt very interesting. people compare him to pimp c too much but maybe he should do it more himself and realise it was pimp cs charisma and the loose playfulness of his flow, not the exact way he delivered his bars that was the appeal, amongst a lot of other things. that moon and the stars remix is my joint though

        he gets the song structure/production aspect of it though, something iv learned to appreciate way more since boom bap shit kinda fell off. i dont think il be satisfied with any new rapper just throwin 3 dope 16s and a perfunctuary hook on a nice beat anymore. theres loads more to rapping well and making great music in general than most of these close-minded modern rappers realise.

        • Thun says:

          The problem of aping styles and not progressing is a bit more complicated than what you’re throwing down here, imo, you seem to be just recycling the same shpiel that Soderberg, Noz, and others have been pushing for the past half decade. Not saying that the shpiel isn’t partially valid, or that you don’t have any thoughts that complicate this narrative or that you needed to write them all down, here, just interjecting for the sake of discussion.

          There’s some truth to what you’re saying, but it isn’t a strictly geographical thing at all, nor is it really a case of linear progressions being halted and frozen in time. There are evolutionary cul-de-sacs in every school of rhyming as well, little detours that never gained much of a following or were never sufficiently imitated as a springboard towards actual innovation. It isn’t always the fault of rappers, though, or not entirely.

          Sometimes shifts in production aesthetics and technology demand a certain kind of rapping and make others seem obsolete even if they once held promise. For example, the move towards programmed drums (as opposed to straight loops of drum breaks) made the advanced, menacing, insistent, cumulatively substantial rapping of early Kool G. Rap/Big Daddy Kane/ Rakim when he rapped fast/LONS on “Zone Coasters”/ very early Nas, etc. seem dated and obsolete even though it really retains to this day a pretty futuristic forward feel.

          The people that continued in the tradition did so under the auspices of a more melodic sensibility … think of AZ, Bun B, and E-Rule as being the East South, and West representatives of this adaptation But even though we love these artists and what they did with the style, it’s an adaptation, not that logical progression that you describe. The baby got thrown out with the bath water … there are some intriguing characteristics of the old style, a certain spacey formiddable quality, that was lost and would be a welcome addition to the current scene if a learned rapper with the breath control and charisma to pull it off chose to restart the long dead engine.

          Also, and this is a point too large to be fully explicated here, the role of criticism, professional or amateur, should not be underestimated. Stagnant styles and scenes, just like vibrant and innovative ones, and everything in between, have armies of taste-makers and apologists now working around the clock thanks to the internet. So, one of the major problems with the East Coast boom-bap is that its taste-makers and apologists, by and large, are either illiterate (to the technical and artistic accomplishments of the earlier artists that their darlings claim as influences) or intentionally deceptive (they choose to ignore the fact that their darlings are poor copies of the originals and unimaginative artists altogether, because they have a vested interest in pushing mediocrities).

          So you get a scene whereby artists like Joell Ortiz and Saigon are praised simply for claiming to be the heirs to a tradition that these taste-makers and apologists claim to be inherently superior to every other style. The minimal commonalities that they share with their predecessors, let’s say a penchant for latinate vocab or multisyllable rhymes or at worst a NYC frame of reference, are accentuated as if they constitute the hallmarks of “meaningful” or “deep” art, while the traits they lack or have no interest in developing (a sense of utility, e.g. making music for the club or the ride or the ladies) are arbitrarily derided as the obsessions of culture-destroying philistines. It doesn’t matter that these rappers are generally lackluster; their heart is in the right place. I have no doubt that artists eventually internalize this coddling and I can’t imagine how anything could be more effective at killing innovation.

          ^I have more to say on these topics but I’ve ran my mouth for too long here. I am in the process of drafting an essay that ties all of this together and functions as a review of Joell and Saigon’s latest releases, so we’ll get to it then as well.

          • done says:

            i plan on making this be my last stupidly big trolling comment box rant like this and i apoligise in advance.
            i feel a need to say a bit of who cares COOL STORY BRO etc type shit in order to put what i wrote before in perspective.

            part of the reason i didnt really expand on what i wa saying was my attempt lately to stop pontificating at length and treating comment boxes like a soapbox (especially here) but thats no excuse and really its probably more to do with my underveloped ability to articulate how i interpret music. and i agree, it is also partly me not having moved beyond the influnce of the bloggers i respect most yet, (yeh noz and brandon being 2 in particular) and just parroting some of their ideas instead of developing a more personal insight.

            i mean, i have them and they are more nuanced than what i wrote above would indicate but im starting to realise i can focous on describing my thoughts a lot easier within a blog post rather than a comment (especially when theyr this long) and should also just edit/think through my shit more in general before posting. most of the time i rarely even respond to any specific points or give any examples to back up my argument, just made these vague statements that could be interpreted a number of ways. im gonna continue to work on these areas im weak in though.

            now with that said, id also like my intent to be very transparant and that i havent been humbled into not offering an opinion or argument to what youv said by my intrepratation of your comment.

            i genuinely mean this – i cant really find fault in anything you have said there. i completely agree, particularly the point you made about the role of criticism. i like how you included amateurs too, maybe you were referring more to bloggers etc and you may not agree but i think the old adage rings true, everyones a critic. if you sit with your friends and discuss an albums failings/strengths your potentially influencing other peoples interpretation of that album and contributing to the zietgiest, on however a small scale it may be. rappers and most other people of influence in the music industry were once these schoolyard critics too and while its easy to view this as only affecting the specific rapper they talk abouts commercial prospects/popularity etc it often has a more direct influence on the rappers and their peers in how they choose to continue to make music as well as the likelyhood of other people being influenced by them. i dont think its a coincidence that theres this abundance of mediocre rappers (ala saigon,joell etc) following a tired blueprint badly when theres been so many, not only as you said “taste-makers and apologists” but fans too crying out for it. theyr simply giving the (however misguided) people what they want instead of doing what feels natural por even “giving them what they dont know they need” as chuck d once said. (hardly the voice of forward thinking attitudes on rap i know, but the sentiment still rings true)

            “The people that continued in the tradition did so under the auspices of a more melodic sensibility … think of AZ, Bun B, and E-Rule as being the East South, and West representatives of this adaptation But even though we love these artists and what they did with the style, it’s an adaptation, not that logical progression that you describe. The baby got thrown out with the bath water … there are some intriguing characteristics of the old style, a certain spacey formiddable quality, that was lost and would be a welcome addition to the current scene if a learned rapper with the breath control and charisma to pull it off chose to restart the long dead engine.”

            ^^^^^^^ this is why my initial ambigious comment was misleading and i felt the need to explain. despite liking them a lot, i agree and would actually use az as an example of someone who despite having a fairly non-progressive style is till capable of making greta music (id put sean p in this catagory but im not that often impressed with his actual songs, more his verse as a seperate, stand alone things.) im not really qualified to speak on e-rule having only a passing familiarity with the rest of his catalogue but buns largely an exeption to this in my opinion but itd take me a while to clarify why i think this and iv taken up far too m uch space already.

            dunno if it was my vagueness or you just misread my comment but people like az are the exeption in my opinion. im not one of them golden era killjoys usually but i do really think certain strains of east coast oriented rapping’s development more or less halted, or at least started slowing dramatically in the mid nineties, for the most part anyways. while i agree that its a lot more complicated than that and it wasnt exclusively an east coast thing (the emergence of boring as fuck country rap nostalgists lately like freddie gibbs, pill etc is testamant to that) other regions have still maintained a relatively healthy development in comparison, producing new rapping/production styles and completely original rappers at a much higher rate. this last points an incredibly old one, bee around for a decade in fact, but i didnt want to give th impression i thought az was this super-progressive rapper.

  2. Like so many others I was introduced to this track by listening and recording Stretch & Bobbito in the 90’s..It dropped in my Senior year of High School so it is associated with some of the best times of my life. For me it is on a short list of the best records to be played on NY Underground Hip-Hop radio in the 90’s.

  3. Droopy says:

    Wow, now Im thinking of the jams I would listen to on my cassette player on the way to swim camp in the summer: Snoop’s Murder Was The Case soundtrack. This explains so much.

    1994 was such a good year.

  4. cenzi says:

    lol @ “I am reminded of De La Soul’s….”

    everything reminds you of De La. 90% of your “opinions” in this blog mention De La at one point or another.

    • Thun says:

      1. 90%? No, that’s just simply not true, or close to being true. In this instance, I was noting a resemblance to one De La song, which I’ve described as having characteristics that distinguish it from the rest of their catalogue.

      2. I spent the majority of this post writing about the aspects of the song that separate it from its resemblance to “Breakadawn.” I also compared it to other songs by other groups.

      3. The reason I brought up De La Soul “Breakadawn” is because I typically play the songs together.

      4. Even if anything you stated was accurate, what’s your point?

      5. 90% of your “opinions” are hyperbolic and reek of desperation.

  5. done says:

    ugh regretting that comment now

  6. Thun says:

    Done – I’m going to do the unthinkable and extend the conversation a bit more, but just to clarify where I stand on a few things. I think we disagree with a lot more than has been acknowledged thus far.

    1. It is true that I long for a (for lack of a better term, perhaps) progressive or innovative spirit to return to the NYC/east coast rap scene. I would like to hear more emcees either pick up on innovations that were dead-ends and take them logically forward or just dare to create a new style altogether (the extent to which this is truly possible in 2012 is sure to be a contentious issue among some).

    2. That being said, I do not think that all rap music should attempt to be progressive or that a progressive approach is inherently good. Some experiments are just wack. Some are ephemeral. Some will be exposed as elaborate hackery, not even worthy of being praised in the future. Sometimes all I want out of music is it to sound good, and if that sometimes involves the revisitation of a certain sound, I don’t consider that to be some kind of sin that needs to be punished by the denunciation of an entire region or sound.

    3. Maybe I’m misreading you, but you seem to think that because it can be validly claimed that their is a certain level of artistic stagnation among East Coast rappers, that there must logically be other vibrant scenes out there that are characterized by constant innovation. It’s a popular concept, but not one that I subscribe to. I think there’s a whole lot of shit out there, weighing down and ruining most of those other scenes as well, including an abundance of artists that are ass ignorant and derivative, to say nothing of being wack. I’m just not as concerned about them, or rather I do not feel the need to express urgent concern because I’d be doing so as an outsider. My most fervent critique will be doled out in the scene I consider home.

    4. Even so, it must be stated that pretty much every scene seems to have its obnoxious apologists, fanatics, etc. The non-east coast scenes have defenders who assign arbitrary (and in many cases contradictory) value to youth, novelty, utility, local accent/dialect, criminal posturing, etc. and often invoke some of the most ridiculous po-mo defenses on the behalf of artists that are simply amateurish or just plain wack when it comes to the fundamentals of rapping; “if you don’t like it, you’re an elitist who doesn’t get it and it wasn’t made for you anyway.”

    • done says:

      ha! so much for my promise, you forced my hand

      “I do not think that all rap music should attempt to be progressive or that a progressive approach is inherently good.”

      well neither do i, i really think it should be judged on a rapper by rapper basis and that how much progression or lack of should be seen is a wholly subjective thing based on the rappers own strengths and where they want to take their music. my problems with the really common culture of having these unneccesary pressures (be they from outside or self-imposed) on so many rappers to conform to certain traditional norms/standards instead of doing what feels natural or would be the best use of their potential. (im paraphrasing someone here, feeling it could be you ha!) there used to be different standards that were more widely embraced like being unlike any before and at the same time being better whereas now its seen as good enough to just reach higher your peers but you can only dream of reaching the lofty heights of your predecessors.

      i dont think a progressive approach should be blanket applied, thatd be both impossible and just as unsatisfying as the current status quo but a much healthier balance of the amount of innovation would happen if these traditionalist ideals werent encouraged as being a good thing and REAL HIP HOP. i dont think them ind of ideals are a good part of any genres healthy development.

      “Sometimes all I want out of music is it to sound good, and if that sometimes involves the revisitation of a certain sound, I don’t consider that to be some kind of sin that needs to be punished by the denunciation of an entire region or sound.”

      i dont have a problem with anyone thats capable of doing that well, (az being an example) but i think the problem is that the further we get from the mid ninties or whatever the harder it is to make it sound natural or focoused, especially cos theyr making it in an entirely different context where theyr not hearing loads of exciting new music in a similar vein constantly to inspire and motivate them to do better.
      its such a rarefied skill because no matter what you do, all their benchmarks are seen through the rear view which is often a dangerously nostalgic one, and its hard to have a clear perspective on what to do next when you have to look back like that for reference, often misinterpreting, romantisiing or just plain misusing that inspiration from those good old days.

      “Some experiments are just wack. Some are ephemeral. Some will be exposed as elaborate hackery, not even worthy of being praised in the future.”

      well yeah and not to be condescending, im sure you know this but man thats what makes it experimentation. in order to succeed you have to fail, eggs, omellette etc. but its harder to experiment or bring that experiment to its creative fruition when theres so many bad influences in the form of your generic peers and those boom bap principles. none of which were as prevelant back in the days on the east coast, or at least werent as powerful/rigidly held.

      “that there must logically be other vibrant scenes out there that are characterized by constant innovation.”

      well iv no response to this other than there just is. but my thinking this is not a result of any logical conclusion or assumption based of comparison to the east coast stagnancy or some misguided idea of karma/balance, its from hearing it and seeing it. it doesnt take much of a search to find tons of great rappers/producers from other regions with really original styles, particularly the bay, wwhov been churning em out the last few years, probably because they have there own widely held and maintained ideals, that of being original and being yourself.

      any time i ever hear bay area rappers asked in interviews what sets the bay apart, they nearly always say that exact thing- being original/being yourself. they also have great reverence to their influences, but never at the extent of progression (and their pioneers mostly believe this too and often still make great new music) i mean seriously what other region not only respects, but still makes music with its pioneers to the extent the bay does – too short, e-40, mac dre, andre nickatina etc. yeah its the most extreme example but sos new york just in the opposite way – it actually is a geographical difference in ideals, nys just got more badly corrupted than anyone elses.

      sure theres elitists, obnoxious apologists, fanatics, bad rappers, misguided principles etc in every scene but some have more than others, theyr just problematic in different ways. and “amateurish or just plain wack when it comes to the fundamentals of rapping” is purely subjective and dependant on how much you understand of the context of the rapper’s age, influences, region, peers and the wildly varying standards of what makes someone good or wack when you factor in those things.

      and if people really cant get into any of the countless new really amazing rappers (im young, dumb and full of enthusiastic hyperbole but it really feels like the dawning of a new minor golden age lately. apologies.) appearing from outside of the boom bap tradition it really is just a case of acclimatising yourself to those different accents/ regional styles/ standards and learning to have a more open mind, it takes time and a lot of effort but eventually youl find yourself liking things you never dreamed of not hating.

      i personally have very different taste than i did a year ago, and this is still happening but not in the confused way i can imagine that sounds. i less and less find myself falling out of love with rappers i used to be a fan of and more and more just finding new ones to add to the list. i dont think you can understand your standards for judging rap music unless you constantly test them and be very open to redefining them. if your not willing to grow a lot, especially at the rate rap changes, (it still is really th most cutting edge music goin in my opinion.) prepare to be dissapointed more and more as you get older, maybe even giving up on new rap whichd be such a shame cos its still great.

      • Thun says:

        We’re talking past each other now. We are in agreement about 90% of the way, the 10% we disagree on is as you’ve noted due to the subjectivity of taste.

        If we are to continue this discussion it has to be framed more specifically. s you’ve noted, let’s take it to a case by case analysis, otherwise we’re really just pontificating more grandly than either of us wants to.

        Good discussion, nevertheless.

        • done says:

          yeah your right its pretty pointless speaking in these overall terms without a specific frame of reference or examples. we may as well be going “i like rap music!” “me too!” at this point. but yeah good discussion, appreciate you taking the time to respond.

          i think in future if these gigantic responses are warrented, which they very rarely are, il restrict em to a well thought out post not a hasty comment. that should stop me from responding if iv nothing worthwhile to add

  7. MAAD says:

    “Listen Up” single did eventually come out on cassette, I do remember buying it from Beat Street on Fordham road in the Bronx around Summer of ’94 along with other singles…

    btw. I had a whole new level of respect for West Coast emcees after hearing this, this song is a timeless classic, Just wish ERULE came out with a whole album of this stuff…

  8. ESEUNO says:

    Beautiful music indeed.

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