Sir Mix-A-Lot ~ Swass (1988)

Posted on April 14, 2013


By the late 1980’s, the West Coast had a sizable presence in the rap world. But most of its artists hailed from California, with Los Angeles County (Ice-T, Eazy-E and NWA) and the Bay Area (Too Short and MC Hammer) generating the most attention. But beginning in 1987, a maverick from Seattle, Washington began to make inroads, and over the next few years, he’d become Seattle’s biggest countercultural musical pioneer since Jimi Hendrix. His birth name was Anthony Ray, but the world at large came to know him as Sir Mix-A-Lot.

A few years before he’d receive platinum prestige and seven-figure royalties, Sir Mix-A-Lot was a DJ, emcee, and music experimentalist, trying to find his own identity within the early 1980’s rap scene, and looking for an angle to distinguish himself from both the standard bearers in New York City, and the electro hop and gangsta rap pioneers emerging in L.A. Mix-A-Lot’s career began to take shape in 1984, when Seattle radio jock “Nasty” Nes Rodriguez and promoter Ed Locke caught one of the then 21-year-old Mix’s performances at a Seatown chapter of the Boys & Girls Club. Intrigued by his style and sound, Locke and Rodriguez asked for a tape of his work, which Nasty Nes began to play on his Fresh Tracks radio show. In 1985, Locke borrowed $900 to press up a four-song Mix-A-Lot EP which contained “Square Dance Rap”, a novelty-esque jam that became a regional hit in the Midwest and the South. Blending the names of Nasty Nes and Sir Mix-A-Lot, Locke formed Nastymix Records, pressed 60,000 copies of “Square Dance Rap” as a single, and over the next year or so, Mix-A-Lot built a cult following in various parts of the U.S., through “Square Dance Rap” and the 1987 follow-up single “Posse On Broadway”. In 1988, Nastymix issued Swass; an album’s worth of tracks Sir Mix-A-Lot laid on his home 4-track recorder; and in the process, a rap legend from the Pacific Northwest was born.

Swass is a unique hybrid of an album, with a blending of digital funk, hard rock, and electro hop influences that’s unlike the sounds prevalent in rap’s Golden Era. Sir Mix-A-Lot also proves to be an engaging lyricist, with an elastic rhyme flow and undeniable charisma that mesh well with his syncopated backdrops. To start the album, Mix-A-Lot plays the background, and Seattle emcee Kid Sensation – the voice behind “Square Dance Rap” – takes the lead for the album’s opener “Buttermilk Biscuits”; assuming a nasally hillbilly vocal tone, and rhyming about his favorite side dish, over a breezy Minneapolis funk track that recalls the Prince / Morris Day & The Time sound of the early 80’s. The lowrider classic “Posse On Broadway” is next; a cut with booming 808 dips that finds Mix-A-Lot cruising Seattle’s Central District after dark with his crew in tow, and looking for something to get into in the streets of Seatown. “Gold” is a demonstration of proper floss technique, with doomful synths and breaks from NWA’s “Dope Man”, and featuring Mix-A-Lot and his crew blowing a king’s ransom on gold accessories, and then styling on the Pacific Northwest. Mix’s swag continues on “Swass”, another track with a Twin Cities pop-funk base, where Mix rhymes and harmonizes in an off-and-on rhyme cadence, and flosses like a Big Boss Man. “Rippin” moves at about 80 miles per hour, and has Mix-A-Lot gliding across a whimsical, 808-backed Miami bass track at light speed. And Side One of Swass concludes with the bouncy “Attack On The Stars”, a multi-layered assault where Mix blasts his pistol, dismantles his opponents, and flaunts his breathtaking but underrated flow.

Side Two of Swass leaves no base uncovered, by offering a variety of styles that run from rugged to smooth, and spread the floor without spreading Sir Mix-A-Lot too thin. “Hip Hop Soldier” is an aggravated burner with 808 cowbells and canned machine gun fire, where Mix’s inner bruiser merges, and he snaps necks, and brandishes .44 Magnums, Berettas, and an assortment of automatic weapons on anyone foolish enough to step in his path. “Iron Man” predates Mix-A-Lot’s dalliances with rock music in the late 1990’s, through an ambitious remake of the Black Sabbath classic “Iron Man”, which features Mix stomping across the original’s helter-skelter groove, supplied this time around by Seattle thrash band Metal Church. “Bremelo” has a bass percolation similar to the sound of future Mix-A-Lot business associate (and Def Jam Records founder) Rick Rubin, and a storyline akin to Eazy-E’s “Fat Girl”, where Mix clowns a homely, morbidly obese woman from the Seattle suburb of Bremerton. “Square Dance Rap”, Sir Mix-A-Lot’s very first hit, is as jubilant and infectious as it was back in the mid 80’s. On this cut, Kid Sensation introduces the country cowpoke affectation he’d later use on “Buttermilk Biscuits”; flowing as a square dance caller, and issuing step directives in rhyme, over a celestial digi funk beat from Mix-A-Lot. “Romantic Interlude” is a 180 from the rest of Swass, with an entrancing slow dance track, vocoder effects on the hook, and lothario poetics from Sir Mix-A-Lot, who seduces a beauty through suave, measured verses, and comes across like a spoken-word incarnation of Melvin Riley, the lead singer of 80’s R&B band Ready for the World. And Mix slams the door on Swass with “F The BS”, a regal banger with easy beat switches, hard scratches, and incredibly nimble metaphors from Sir Mix-A-Lot.

Nastymix Records took a bit of a gamble when they issued Swass as a full-length album; not knowing if Sir Mix-A-Lot would soar or crash and burn. Their risk paid off handsomely, as the album sold more than one million copies within a year of its release, and generated huge sums of revenue for the label. This would be the start of a phenomenal run for Sir Mix-A-Lot, who’d drop another platinum album (1989’s Seminar) one year after this set’s release. Mix would leave Nastymix Records in 1990 over money disputes, and be recruited by noted record producer Rick Rubin to join his new label American Recordings. In 1992, Mix-A-Lot reached pop immortality with his multi-platinum American debut Mack Daddy, and its monster hit single “Baby Got Back”, for which Mix would win the Best Rap Solo Performance Grammy in 1993. Though Sir Mix-A-Lot’s popularity waned in the late 1990’s, he continued to blaze his own trail musically, partly through the rap-rock band Subset, a collaboration between Mix and the Presidents of the United States of America, an alternative band based in Seattle. Sir Mix-A-Lot would make bigger hits than those found on this album, but to date, Swass has been the creative highpoint of his career. It showed the rap world there was more to West Coast rap than just the Bay Area and L.A., and it gave Seattle a national presence in music before the grunge explosion of the early 90’s. Give Swass a listen; and behold a pioneering mastermind at work.

To listen to Swass, click here.