It goes without saying that the best compilations are educational exercises as opposed to promotional vehicles for a particular roster or sales pitches for the featured artists. Regional punk compilations like Flex Your Head (Dischord Records, Washington D.C., 1981) and Let Them Eat Jellybeans (Alternative Tentacles, USA West Coast, 1981) are some of the best examples of the compilation as historical document; the same goes for the endless parade of rare groove, reggae and Latin jazz comps the folks at Soul Jazz and Universal Sound in London have been trotting out since the late 1990s. But the highest seat in compilation-dom is reserved for those rare collections that unearth classic but largely unheard music that rightfully deserves its place in history.
Such status belongs to The Third Unheard, a thirteen-track history lesson of rare and unreleased early hip-hop from southern Connecticut. It was compiled by archivist extraordinaire, Connecticut native and Stones Throw label manager Eothen “Egon” Alapatt. The findings are revelatory, perhaps even for seasoned old-school vets who may have never known that almost immediately after “Rapper’s Delight” was etched onto wax, a guy named Mr. Magic (not the host of Mr. Magic’s Rap Attack but Tony Pearson, then-owner of a small black-music record store called Magic Records) from Ansonia, Connecticut was scouring his state for converts to the rapidly spreading gospel of hip-hop.
The vibrancy of The Third Unheard is encapsulated in the first three tracks: Mr. Magic’s “Rappin’ with Mr. Magic” and “Potential 1980,” featuring the Cuzz Band, which shows up later with the Parliament-on-a-budget funk of “I Just Wanna Dance,” and “Get Up (And Go To School)” by Magic’s then-twelve-year-old nephew Pookey Blow, possibly the earliest known recording by a pre-teen emcee.
“Rappin’,” the first twelve-inch on Magic Records (later Tri-State Records), tells the whole story. With a scratchy bass line about a half a note off from a straight-up “Good Times” rip, a “Good Times”-esque guitar line and intermittent bongos, the music evokes the bare-bones funk of early ESG. Magic notes, “Some people say Connecticut can’t rock/ But I’m here to make you all hip and hop/ It’s not about the freak, it’s not a body rock/ Here’s a brand new dance/ It’s called the punk rock,” before toasting to Bridgeport, Waterbury and Meriden.
Pookey sometimes loses grasp of the rhymes his uncle wrote for him, but “Get Up (And Go To School)” might be the collection’s most enjoyable and funkiest track. With its random, spaced-out synth flourishes, exhortations to put on nice pants and eat oatmeal before school, and a show-stealing kazoo solo played by Pookey himself, the track stands out from other hip-hop recordings of the time that were backed by live bands.
The quality and originality of the material trails off somewhat after “Potential 1980,” which ranks up there with any of the other disco-rap party tracks from the period, but there is more to be discovered. Though not as outstanding as Pookey Blow’s solo on “Get Up,” Mr. Magic and the Positive Choice Band’s “2001 Kazoos” further explores the beat-charming potential of the kazoo. The corny-yet-eerie “Ventriloquist Rap” by Willie Brown and his dummy “Woody” is also likely a first of its kind, if not unique altogether.
Close enough to New York City to absorb hip-hop’s early developments but far enough away to foster independent aesthetics, the unsung pioneers of Connecticut hip-hop fully deserve their moment in the sun.