About five years ago I went on a major old-school hip-hop kick. I am not sure what spurred it but I think it might have had something to do with “Looking for the Perfect Beat”, which totally knocked me on my ass the first time I heard it. Surely there must be something else out there that sounded like this. Trouble is that hip-hop before 1984 is sort of a nebulous thing. Lots of singles and a ton of difficult to find 12 inches, many of which are still difficult to find even in digital form. But I’m an albums guy, and sadly the era didn’t really produce a whole lot of classics there. Mostly because there aren’t too many, and those that exist tend to be either repackagings of singles (see Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s first LP) or cut with bad soul covers (those early Sugarhill Gang releases).
For my money Lost in Space by The Jonzun Crew is the best of the pre-Run DMC bunch, which is to say the best hip-hop album before there really was a such thing as hip-hop albums. Sort of a backhanded compliment but don’t let that deter you. Though frankly it’s not really much of a hip-hop album either – Lost in Space fits more into the category of “synth-funk with occasional rapping”, though frankly the rapping is not very good, even in an era where “if your name is Clyde, get off your backside!” was a passable lyric. As it is I think the general idea of the album is to answer the question, “what if Kraftwerk were funky?”. Mind you this is three years before “Planet Rock”, and it manages to do it without sampling a large chunk of Kraftwerk directly like Bam did. There is a nod to “Trans-Europe Express” in “Pack Jam”, but otherwise these dudes are fairly original. Mainly because they had their own rhythmic thing going on; by mixing drum machines with an actual funky drummer, they created this dual rhythm effect that makes the album sound as though it was designed exclusively for breakdancing. That’s the element that really makes the album hold up; there’s a real thickness on the grooves that a lot of electro-funk hadn’t quite figured out.
If you want to know what Lost in Space sounds like, just look at the song titles. Indeed it’s a trip through outer space, perhaps even the same one Parliament was on for so many years. Lots of rising analog synths (like a space shuttle taking off) and most of the words are sung through a vocoder, which hadn’t really been done in a hip-hop context like this before. Still, it’s funk above all else – “We Are the Jonzun Crew” jostles and shakes all over the deck of the ship, with something like five different rhythmic parts all going on at once. Hard to even imagine dancing to it without getting all twitchy. It’s enough to make you forget that there isn’t much of a song there, but who needs songs with grooves like these? By my count, there are only two real tunes on here – “Ground Control” and “Space Cowboy”, which is this strange hip-hop/country cross-over tune that’s either awesome or embarrassing. I think they’re both great, particularly “Ground Control” which is really the LP’s standout track, thanks to its big dramatic synth parts. Granted, both are marred by the fact that the lyrics are a total afterthought (“Ground control, what more can I say?” on one, “He’s a space cowboy with a laser gun!” on the other), but that’s also part of the charm. Other tracks are mostly instrumental, with some placeholder lyrics – the brooding “Space is the Place” and the massively funky “Pack Jam” are both excellent; “Electro Boogie Encounter” a bit behind but still quite fun.
What really sets this album apart from similar LPs from this era is the consistency – five of the six tracks were released as singles, with only “Ground Control” sitting out because it was deemed too slow. Even The Message, the first Grandmaster Flash LP wasn’t this strong, despite the fact that it was essentially a compilation. Sadly none of the singles were all too successful – perhaps the market wasn’t quite primed for this sort of music yet, unless it had some sort of novelty factor (“Rockit”, a major hit that year). They made some noise on the R&B charts, hitting the Top 40 four times, but the singles didn’t really make a dent anywhere else. The album itself sputtered out at #66 on the Billboard 200, and that was that.
Sadly the end result was that one of the earliest and best electro-funk bands essentially got written out of history. There’s a fascinating interview with JayQuan where Michael (the head Jonzun) gets into it a bit; comfortable with his legacy but obviously peeved that the Jonzun Crew didn’t get the same sort of attention as Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force. At the same time he takes credit for Run DMC’s “Walk This Way”, claims that he sold a million records, and recounts a time when 80,000 people paid to see him play in Miami, so maybe take it all with a grain of salt. He blames the Jonzun Crew’s lack of success on bad marketing, which is probably true, though he neglects to mention the effect their follow-up LP Down to Earth might have had on the band’s career.
If Lost in Space represents the potential of electro-funk, Down to Earth represents why it became such a dead-end. It’s full-on candy-coated pop, with wafer-thin bass lines, squealing high-pitched synths, lots of Fairlight, and a heavy dose of Michael Jonzun’s own vocals on most of the tracks. Jonzun’s voice is actually quite good for this sort of music, but the material on here is just totally stale, paint-by-numbers digi-funk. That said, Allmusic has a strange affinity for this album, which is strange – nobody else seems to have heard of it, and yet they call it a “real masterpiece” and “an important cornerstone of Boston area music history”, despite assigning it a 3-star rating. Don’t be fooled – it totally blows, first and foremost because it sounds like it was recorded in a shoebox. There are two songs I dig – “The Wizard of Space” and “Time is Running Out”, not coincidentally the two tracks that remind me the most of the debut. The 16-track jumble I’ve got on MP3 gives no indication of what the original LP was like, and it wound up never getting a CD release. If you see the cover, it’s pretty clear who Jonzun was trying to imitate here – where oh where have I seen that shade of bright red before?
A major sidelight to the Jonzun Crew story is Maurice Starr, originally born Larry Jonzun, who wound up becoming a hitmaker in his own right, forming and writing much of the material for both New Edition and New Kids on the Block. Michael was involved to some degree with New Edition, getting some vague credits on Candy Girl as a co-arranger and songwriter. As it turns out there was one more Jonzun Crew album, 1990’s Cosmic Love. This one was even less popular than Down to Earth was, though Allmusic still absolutely loves it for some reason: “Why the New Kids on the Block weren’t brought in to promote this music in TV ads is perplexing — NKOTB were huge at the time and core fans of Jonzun Crew couldn’t wait for their next release”, the writer claims, though it’s hard to imagine who these “core fans” could have been. He also claims that Michael Jonzun “crafted this album over many years”…if these songs weren’t NKOTB rejects you could’ve fooled me. All New Jack Swing and lame balladry, trading in the spacey synthesizers for saxophones and more damn Fairlight. I guess the one redeeming factor is that it sounds better than Down to Earth, even if the songs are a lot less fun.
Which I guess begs the question of what might have become of the Jonzun Crew had Lost in Space achieved the success it deserved. Starr and Jonzun were both versatile and talented musicians, but they ultimately fell victim to the allure of the hit single, which has ruined a good many careers. I’m not convinced either of them did anything outside that LP worth listening to, but I’m not exactly willing to queue up a whole bunch of New Kids on the Block LPs in order to find out. Which leaves Lost in Space as the sort of thing record collectors dream of – the one-off hidden gem that a number of more famous acts probably cribbed a few ideas from. As far as I can tell the album really did languish in obscurity up until Tommy Boy re-released it as part of their 20th anniversary series in 2001. As for Michael Jonzun, Maurice Starr, and the other Jonzun guy, they seem to have collectively fallen off the planet. History may not see them as major players on the hip-hop or electrofunk scenes, but those who hear this album should be convinced otherwise.