I will never forget my first shopping trip to Brooklyn. It was one of the more memorable experiences of my 12-year-old prepubescent career. During the course of the trip, I copped some less than authentic (but still fashionable) gear and had the opportunity to marvel at the sights and characters on Flatbush Avenue and Prospect Park. I also added some high quality, bootleg hip-hop cassettes to my one-piece music collection, and had many of the weekend’s purchases stolen from the locked vehicle that we were to drive home in. But to this day, I still own some of my earliest musical selections. Among them was the second release from a bright, young star from the borough named Special Ed.
After moving bodies nationwide with his undeniable hit “I Got It Made,” Special Ed’s debut album Youngest in Charge (1989) made him a star in his neighborhood, city and country. Having made his major contribution to the music world, his pretty boy looks also gained him legions of female fans, while he earned admiration from male listeners for his skills on the mic. With this unstoppable combination of talent, charm, and public acceptance, Special Ed was in a position to make major moves. Cameo appearances on TV’s “The Cosby Show” and the film “Juice” further boosted his ascent to ghetto superstar status. At only 17 years of age, he became a pioneer for the trends seen in the rap world today.
At his prime, Special Ed (real name: Edward Archer) was no less than an adolescent version of Jay-Z. He was indeed living the glamorous life that is seen as part of the business. And he did so without bringing out the hater in you. His ridiculous lyrical skills were honed through battles, freestyles and talent shows throughout his Flatbush neighborhood. He was an MC’s MC, recalling the best qualities of Slick Rick, Kool G. Rap and Big Daddy Kane. His breath control and cool vocal style provided for justifiable comparison to the master, Rakim. So why is it that Special Ed didn’t enjoy the success of his contemporaries and modern day successors, such as Jigga?
The case can be made for record label politics (yes), a fickle hip-hop audience (yes) or the plot of scheming industry types who were out to dull his shine (conspiracies are always useful). One thing is certain, though: his decline was not due to a sophomore slump. A decade later, I still have my bootleg copy of Legal (1990), Ed’s second album, named for the celebration of his 18th birthday. (Note: the writer no longer participates in the regular, wholesale purchase of illegitimate music.) As the years pass, its power has remained.
At only 40 minutes in length, the album should be labeled an EP instead of an LP. However, many of today’s artists should realize that quantity is never a substitute for quality. Ed’s flow was unique, slightly congested, and influenced by his West Indian background/Brooklyn habitat. Special Ed always represented Flatbush (his Brooklyn neighborhood) thoroughly in his lyrics as he made the effort to stay connected to where he came from. With thick, flavorful production from his mentor, Howie Tee, and precise scratching from his right hand man, DJ Akshun, you know Ed had beats. It is a shame that this album was so heavily slept on and did not succeed in propelling the Brooklyn representative to new levels of stardom. The album was not promoted well and it did not help that on the cover he was dressed in Cross Colours’ after-seven, GQ-smooth apparel as part of a label-induced attempt to capitalize on his sex symbol status.
“Come On, Let’s Move It” and “The Mission” were outstanding examples of the young MC’s potential, spawning quality videos but only receiving moderate attention from the public. This neglect was unfortunate because the weakest track on Legal is still better than most artists’ lead singles. Additionally, Ed needed to grow in terms of his content, since the songs usually consisted solely of descriptions about how he could never be taken out (lyrically). Before Raekwon and Ghost dazzled (and simultaneously confused) the world with their slanguistics, Special Ed had manipulated the English language like no other. But he could definitely flip to his narrative skills on a dime. “Livin’ Like a Star” provides two cautionary tales about carelessness and hubris that result in lessons learned when success goes to one’s head. Ed gives us some insight about the simple formula that led to his success with lines like, “Every day I wake up/ I take up my pen/ I write a dope rhyme, then I stretch and bend/ and I exercise/ wipe the boogers out my eyes/ and so on…” Can it all be so simple?
Special Ed is significant because he is one of several lost stars from hip-hop’s golden age. He was caught up in a bad business situation and ended up paying for it. Disregarding his disturbingly mediocre third effort, which was thrown together five years after Legal, Ed has two memorable albums and involvement with the successful Crooklyn Dodgers project (with Buckshot, Masta Ace, and Q-Tip) under his belt. He also drops independent singles every now and then in the New York City underground.
Those that are lucky enough may catch him on the L.A.-based The Wake Up Show impressing listeners with his legendary freestyle ability. In addition, he owns the Dolla Cab Lab, a recording studio in Brooklyn. If you’re a fan of music, take the time to dig through the bins in stores and look up the early works of artists who did not have the luxury of radio play 24-7. Unfortunately, the trip down memory lane will leave you to wonder what could have been.