On Fire [2001 Reissue]

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In 1986, the members of the Roots were still pulling little girls' pigtails and probably just beginning to pick up their instruments, so -- if you conveniently ignore Tackhead, the house band for Sugarhill Records throughout the early '80s--Stetsasonic had every right to declare themselves the original, "world's one-and-only hip-hop band." As with a lot of trailblazers and groundbreakers, the group's earliest music naturally doesn't sound as innovative, inventive, or fresh decades down the line as it did when it was first recorded, and it hasn't aged in entirely flattering ways, sounding at times like an anachronism when contrasted against later generations for which sampling had become such an art form in the hands of some producers (including, incidentally, Prince Paul) that it sounds more organic than many of On Fire's tracks. Recorded live or not, the album would still have been very much a product of the old-school rap milieu, and it sounds like it, with an emphasis on heavy 808-type drum kicks (though often played on a trap kit), bare-bones beat-boxing, uncomplicated keyboard hooks, and the slightly bombastic (but always fun and usually impressive) communal vocal tradeoff between the group's three MCs. On occasion, the sextet does indeed catch fire with this style (the party-rocking "Go Stetsa I" and the awesome "Bust That Groove," on which Daddy O shines), but for every time it works, there is also a song that stays mired in its era. There is still plenty to appreciate on On Fire, and with the 2001 reissue of the album, part of Tommy Boy's 20th Anniversary series, there is now more of it to appreciate than ever before. Particularly outstanding is "Just Say Stet," a showcase for Prince Paul and Wise, and the brooding new wave-influenced electronic rock of "Rock De La Stet," with its amazing collusion of guitar pyrotechnics and dense, futuristic synthesizers. With such great cuts as guides, Stetsasonic would next go on to record the stone-cold classic In Full Gear, which belongs in all rap collections. On Fire is probably more for specialized tastes, but it is a worthwhile effort nonetheless. [Of the three bonus tracks, special mention goes to the remix of the conscientious "A.F.R.I.C.A.," produced by the man who, in a few years, would reinvent himself as the block-rockin' Fatboy Slim.]

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