The Fresh Artifact
Tame One is beyond labels
by Damian Ghigliotty
Rahem “Tame One” Brown sounds unusually literal when he says that he’ll probably rap till he’s seventy. But if he happens to stop before than, expect his name to continually pop up in the meantime—even if it’s written on an abandoned warehouse wall out in the depths of New Jersey, undetected by Google Satellite. Back in the early ’80s Tame branded himself the same way as a young graffiti writer with aspirations of one day rhyming like Run.
The Newark native, best known among older hip-hop heads for the two Artifacts albums, and among younger indie fans for three LPs on Eastern Conference Records, is one of hip-hop’s few veterans just as eager to create as he was when he first got on; seventeen years ago. And he still writes graffiti like time doesn’t exist.
Since inking his first deal with Big Beat/Atlantic Records in’93, Tame has continually treated label deals both big and small like rose petals leading to the master bedroom. Or, more appropriately, like busy nights in motels while the master bedroom remains untouched—stepping stones, but never the final destination.
“I call them one-offs,” he says as he sips a beer in his backyard in Hillside, New Jersey. “I compare it to Prince. Instead of having to go to the studio every time you sign a deal, running up bills in the process, record yourself a catalog of shit. And then sell it to labels.”
Since the beginning of his career as a signed artist, Tame has brokered record deals for two group albums, six solo albums, three collaborative albums, and a handful of singles and EPs on six different labels. Over the same seventeen years, he’s moved from cassette to vinyl to CD to vinyl to digital-only releases. But to those who haven’t closely followed his transitions, the Notty-Headed Terror from Jersey has occasionally slipped on and off the radar as he’s bounced from one label to another.
He and his Artifacts co-emcee El Da Sensei made their first official appearance with the Nubian Crackers in the summer of ’93, on the bass-heavy single “Do You Wanna Hear It?” Around the same time, Tame and El’s demo release of the graffiti-themed “Wrong Side of the Tracks” earned them unsigned hype in issue #43 of The Source. A year later, in October ’94, the two debuted with their first album Between a Rock and a Hard Place on the dance and hip-hop subsidiary of Atlantic Records that later signed Lil’ Kim, Junior M.A.F.I.A., Mad Skillz, and Changing Faces, among other acts.
Big Beat formed its footprint back when hip-hop was far less glamorized as an art form and far more marginalized as a business, and major records labels were less inclined to sign rap artists to their main divisions—unless they showed superstar potential in their first few weeks. The Artifacts with their heavy underground image never fit that description, especially as Big Beat began to sign glossier artists.
“When Lil’ Kim and Junior M.A.F.I.A. got signed, it was a wrap,” says Tame. “We could have done songs with Jesus and they would have been like, ‘Biggie’s not on it!’”
Tame and El, the self-styled duo known as That’s Them in the early ’90s, first started gaining exposure by doing showcases at Club 88, Sensations, and Zanzibar in eastern New Jersey. Other local artists performing at those venues back then included Redman, Queen Latifah, Lords of the Underground, and Naughty by Nature. Jersey had a tightly knit hip-hop scene and most of its artists showed love for the next. But getting signed to a major label was just as important as local support, and That’s Them were just as eager as their peers to make it to the next level. So on an early Friday morning in the summer of ’92, Tame made a late-night over-the-phone appearance on The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show on WKCR in New York. At the time, DJ Stretch Armstrong was also working for Big Beat, helping the label sign and promote new artists. That phone call opened a larger door for Tame and El.
“I used to call up the show all the time,” Tame says with a laugh. “One night they had some over-the-phone freestyle battle and of course your boy won. So I was like, ‘What’s first prize?’ And they told me, ‘You get to come up to the station and spit live.’ I couldn’t call El at four o’clock in the morning, so the next day I was like, ‘Yo, did you hear me last night?’ He was like, ‘Nah, I was asleep. What happened?’ ‘They had a freestyle battle and I won!’”
An extra-long week went by before Tame and El headed up to WKCR at Columbia University to show off their skills on the venerable late-night radio show. That Friday morning, in the clean white recording studio stacked with cassette tapes and 12-inches, Stretch and Bobbito swapped jokes and stories from the previous week while Tame and El chimed in. The two guests were eager to spit, but they also wanted the moment to last. Then, later in the show, Bobbito commenced the duo from Jersey as they started to trade freestyles and verses back and forth. For the next twenty minutes, Tame and El made the recording room theirs, while Stretch juggled beats and Bobbito gave supportive shouts in the background.
After that session ended at five in the morning, Big Beat A&R man Rob “Reef” Tewlow approached the two sweaty MCs with an invitation to kick it at a rooftop cookout with him, Stretch, Bobbito, the Beatnuts, and a pre-mask MF Doom, among others. It was at that cookout in Greenwich Village that Tame and El started to make their first real connections beyond the Jersey hip-hop scene. Stretch, Bobbito, and Reef replayed the recording from WKCR, while everyone soaked in the raw sounds over blunts, beers, and burgers.
A few lunch and dinner meetings later, Tame and El were added to Big Beat’s roster under some preliminary label conditions—one being that they change their name from That’s Them to something more tangible; hence the Artifacts. Despite the initial frustration of an obligatory name change, the two finally felt like they had caught up with their comrades in Jersey who had already signed major label deals.
“We were amped!” says Tame. “We had finally made it to the upper classes! At the time, I looked at Reef as one of those cool, uptown dudes. He was hip, but he was still the establishment. And he had a wicked ear. He knew he heard some fire when we were going at it.”
Both Reef and Stretch put their full support behind the Artifacts as they helped brand their fresh catch—Stretch even took the duo on their first trip overseas when he went to Japan two years later. “I remember Reef and I listening to that recording from the show over and over and saying, ‘I think we found our EPMD,’” says Stretch. “At the time, we had been trying to sign Nas and Souls of Mischief to Big Beat, so we were super excited about Tame and El. And since we were the ones who found them, we knew we could sign them without anyone else getting in our way.”
Over the next year, while the Artifacts were recording Between a Rock and a Hard Place, anticipations grew. Those watching and listening closely from the inside expected Tame and El to hit harder than rocks on pavement. “Wrong Side of Da Tracks” was receiving steady rotation on hip-hop radio shows like WKCR, and the Artifacts began to cultivate a strong following as rising underground artists. Album sales for Between a Rock and a Hard Place never met the initial expectations at Big Beat, but dedicated fans continued to spread word of mouth about the duo from the Bricks. With that buzz holding strong over the next two years—despite moderate sales—Lauryn Hill gave her fellow Jersey native props on the Fugees track “How Many Mics,” with the line, “I’m Tame like the rapper.”
But the high hopes at Big Beat were soon brought down by internal skepticism as the Artifacts failed to gain commercial appeal and Tame began to outwardly struggle with the way things worked under Big Beat’s founder and head honcho, Craig Kallman.
“The hype didn’t die down for us until…we found out how long it takes to get those royalty checks,” says Tame. “The aspirations and dreams got killed somewhere between the first album and the second album. I didn’t even want to do the second album because we hadn’t gotten compensated properly for the first album. But I didn’t want to lose that fan base and I didn’t want to fuck up my friendship with El.”
The group stayed with the label for another year and finished recording their second album, That’s Them. But as Tame continued to lose his high in the process, he became increasingly disenchanted with his contractual obligations to Big Beat. Finally realizing that Kallman had the complete upper hand when it came to him and El getting properly compensated, he split to do his own thing almost as soon as That’s Them hit stores in April ’97.
“I was still waiting for those checks to come from the first album,” he says. “So I left. That was the only way I could solve the problem. Discontinue the Artifacts and contractually escape. That way they couldn’t say, ‘Oh, you owe us two more albums.’ ‘Nah, the group is no more. We can’t do shit now.’ Plus, the roster was kind of weak on Big Beat back then. If they had ever had a family day among record labels, we wouldn’t have won.”
Soon after the Artifacts ostensibly split, while Atlantic held the rights to their group name, they linked back up to do a few new songs under a new brand. Two of those joints, “What What” and “Brick City Kids,” were recorded for a 12-inch single on Rawkus Records/Ghetto Gold Recordings, produced by JuJu & V.I.C. of the Beatnuts clan, and released under the group name Brick City Kids in July ’97. That single helped Tame and El remarket themselves going forward. After a fresh, albeit smaller buzz got started, the two went their own ways.
“Neither Artifacts album had become the next Strictly Business that Reef and I had imagined,” says Stretch, who also left Big Beat (two years before the Artifacts ended their contract.) “But Tame still had so much raw talent and charisma. Back then he was probably listening to his cousin Redman and saying to himself, ‘What’s up? I’m on the same level!’”
With no more obligations to anyone but himself, Tame dipped deeper into his own world: more spastic rhymes and bugged out beats, more frequent one-offs with record labels, more explicit references to smoking PCP. Tame even made a few more disappearing acts. After dropping the raw single “Trife Type Times” on Fat Beats Records in October ’99, the free agent lyricist took a hiatus with his own releases, making sporadic appearances on other artists’ projects over the next few years. But before any fans or critics could count Tame One out, he signed an independent deal with Eastern Conference Records and dropped his first solo album, When Rappers Attack, in May ’03. The success of that album gave him the solid footing he needed on the less conventional side of hip-hop, and his music grew increasingly distinct from the traditional boom-bap sounds of the Artifacts.
That same year, Cage Kennylz, who had also signed to Eastern Conference Records, initiated Tame into the Weathermen, the super-crew formed by several other WKCR veterans: El-P of Company Flow, Breeze Brewin of the Juggaknots, Yak Ballz, Copywrite, Camu Tao, and Vast Aire of Cannibal Ox. (Aesop Rock later joined the crew in ’05 replacing Copywrite and Vast Aire.) A year after the release of When Rappers Attack, Cage and Tame spent several bugged-out nights at Cage’s home in Middletown, New York, writing their collaborative LP Waterworld, which later became a cult classic among indie hip-hop fanatics. That project was quickly followed by a second solo release on Eastern Conference Records, O.G. Bobby Johnson, in March ’05.
“Rest in peace to Eastern Conference Records,” Tame says, as he pours out beer for the record label that helped him jump-start his solo career before the label gradually vanished between ’06 and ’07. The end of that record deal threw Tame’s free agent hustle into hyperdrive, and over the next three years he released six projects (both solo and collaborative) on five different labels. The responses to those individual releases hit a drastic range between high, medium and low, and at times seemingly nonexistent—with little more than diehard fans and underground bloggers voicing their feelings about certain projects. But as long as nobody else was calling the shots, Tame says he was happy just recording, knowing one label or another would meet him halfway when he had enough fresh material to offer.
“My whole approach at that point was to just record an extensive catalogue of shit and then sell it to the labels,” he says.
And record he did, starting with the March ’06 releases of Slow Suicide Stimulus, a collaborative album with the Dusted Dons on Flospot Records, and Spazmatic, a solo album produced by Xing N Fox on Blazin’ Records, followed by the The Grudge mixtape released on Division East Records in February ‘07. Then after dropping two more solo albums on Amalgam Digital—Da Ol’ Jersey Bastard in July ’08 and the digital-only Acid Tab Vocab in June ’09—Tame linked up with his West Coast counterpart, Del the Funky Homosapien, to record the collaborative album Parallel Uni-Verses. Working with the Jersey-based production duo Parallel Thought, both emcees recorded their verses in their respective studio spots and laced the entire album by trading beats, scratches, verses, and hooks over the net. The end product was quickly snatched up by Gold Dust Media and distributed less than four months after the release of Acid Tab Vocab.
“Once I figured out I could do a verse here, and he could do a verse there, and we could make it sound like we were in the same room!? Bam! We did that album in a month,” says Tame. “After that we started to shop it around, like, ‘Yo, you want a Tame and Del album?’ ‘You want a Tame and Del album?’ Who’s gonna front on that? Gold Dust stepped right up. ‘We’ll do it, we’ll sign it!’”
That drive to keep making new music, despite every downward shift in hip-hop over the past ten years, has kept a living Artifact on the map, even as the map’s been torn to shreds. Some of hip-hop’s most influential underground labels, including Rawkus, Fondle ’Em, Eastern Conference, and Definitive Jux, have gone by the wayside, along with a handful of their artists. But for Tame One, the term label never signified permanence to begin with.
Now with Big Beat also buried in the dust, and Atlantic Records on shaky ground, he and El have reunited as the Artifacts with legal ownership of their group name and plans to record their third album more than thirteen years after the release of That’s Them. The two reconnected in the summer of ’09 to perform a few songs during El Da Sensei’s solo set at the Rock Steady Crew Anniversary Weekend in Newark. The following summer, in front of an eager crowd of hip-hop fans both old and young, Tame and El performed a full Artifacts set, alongside DJ Kaos, the group’s original beat juggler.
“It’s no longer ‘Tame One, formerly of the Artifacts,’” says Tame. “We’re back together again. And if everything goes the way it should, Redman’s going to executive produce our next album.”
“It’s crazy what you can do with this music,” he adds with a laugh and another swig. “Nothing like it. Fucking hip-hop!”
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