Rap Ballads. The curse of many otherwise spotless ’80’s hip-hop albums, in much the way that Hip House was in 1989 and the token “Southern” records are on many of today’s releases. If you think back to Big Daddy Kane‘s first album for example, you’ll find that every track is certified dope except for “To Be Your Man”, and that was one of the better rap ballads! LL must also shoulder a large part of the responsibility, as he downgraded from decent love songs like “I Want You” to the vomit-inducing fairy-floss that is “I Need Love”. Many otherwise respectable groups followed suit, although I’m sure that hit-seeking A&R’s are also somewhat to blame for sappy pap such as Stetsasonic‘s “Float On”, Black, Rock & Ron‘s “True Feelings”, Mantronix‘s “Love Letter (Dear Tracy)” etc.
Amidst this sea of musical fluff, TJ Swan often provided the one redeeming feature in these otherwise fast-forwardable songs. Thanks to his vocal stylings, tracks such as MC Shan‘s “Left Me Lonely” can still be listened to today with minimal cringing. It was Swan’s work with Biz Markie that really shines, as his contributions to “Make The Music with You Mouth Biz”, “Albee Square Mall” and “Nobody Beats The Biz” are essential ingredient in these classic tracks. How many rap songs can you say that about? Usually, the sung chorus detracts from the quality of the track, but Marley knew that from years of studying The Force MC‘s, Cold Crush and many other old school harmonizers, that singing could still be hardcore. This lesson seems to have been largely forgotten (with the possible exception of Nate Dogg).
But what do we really know about TJ Swan? According to Biz’s “Vapors”, he originally worked for UPS and “used to try to talk to this girl named Fran”. He also rocked gold and “fly Bally boots, rough leather fashions and tough silk suits”. I remember Marley Marl used to talk about the album he was making with TJ Swan in a bunch of interviews, but sadly it never saw the light of day. DJ Ivory of the P Brothers confirmed that the album was finished, but hasn’t heard it. Why do I care you might ask? Although I pretty sure that 75% of the album would have consisted of Keith Sweat style ballads, there’s also a good chance that there were a couple of vintage “project sound” Marley gems on there, possibly featuring a never-before heard Big Daddy Kane guest appearance or something. When I spoke to Mike Heron a few months back, the topic of Marley came up, prompting the following exchange:
Robbie: Did you ever hear the TJ Swan album?
R: You know TJ Swan? He used to be on Biz’s records.
R: He sang “Albee Square Mall”, “Nobody Beats The Biz”…
M: Oohhh, TJ Swan. You pulled out…[laughs]
R: What happened to his album? In every interview Marley was like “Yep, TJ Swan is gonna be big.” This and that, and it never came out!
M: [still laughing, talking to himself in disbelief] TJ Swan? What the fuck is that nigga talking about? [more laughter] Swear to god, you said that…I should’ve got TJ Swan on Screwball‘s album.
R: He was the best singer in rap. Forgot all that-
M: Yeah, he was the first Nate Dog!
Although that didn’t get me anywhere, at least it provided Mike with a few cheap laughs. If anyone knows the current status of TJ Swan, please let me know what’s going on. With the amount of horrible, poorly sung hooks invading the rap airwaves, 2005 would make a perfect time for Swan to make a return to the game and show these toys how it’s done!
Biz Markie & TJ Swan – Make the Music with Your Mouth, Biz (vocal) (Prism, 1987)
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