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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