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WHODINI (Buy CDs by this artist)
Whodini (Jive) 1983
Escape (Jive) 1984
Back in Black (Jive) 1986
Open Sesame (Jive) 1987
Greatest Hits (Jive) 1990
Bag-A-Trix (MCA) 1991

Standing out from the early crowd of above-ground rappers, this Brooklyn trio (originally a duo) used wit and variety to make some entertaining records. On their debut, Jalil Hutchins and Ecstacy (John Fletcher) worked with three different producers — Thomas Dolby, Conny Plank and the Willesden Dodgers — to come up with an '80s version of "Monster Mash" ("The Haunted House of Rock"), two bouncy history-of-rap/rap-is-good numbers ("Magic's Wand" and "Rap Machine") plus a couple of alternate versions and three more cuts. Although the moderate-tempo big-beat gets a bit numbing, the pair's sharp lyrics and straightforward delivery, plus countless bits of electronic flotsam and jetsam prevent serious tedium.

Escape brought Whodini under the talented studio wing of Run-DMC co-producer Larry Smith, who created a smooth, semi-spare sound and did a lot of the writing as well. With fewer quirky synthesizer accents, the action centers on raps about the urban nightmare ("Escape (I Need a Break)"), failed romance ("Friends") and New York's 24-hour lifestyle ("Freaks Come Out at Night"), as well as other more egocentric topics. Airy without being simple, Escape is appealing and innovative.

With Grandmaster Dee (celebrated on an Escape song) officially expanding Whodini to a threesome, Back in Black is a blunter record, with less reliance on fancy production and more concentration on varied, organic arrangements. However, while Whodini's music has gotten noticeably stronger, their lyrics are stagnant: all eight cuts cover familiar rap ground with no special outlook and only intermittent cleverness.

The centerpiece of the lively Open Sesame teams the trio with the original bad girl of rap, Millie Jackson. (A pre-LP 12-inch offers six different mixes of "Be Yourself," a busy statement against mindless conformity, a message which is reprised, after a fashion, on the LP's "For the Body.") Elsewhere along this moralistic ride, Whodini praises mom ("Early Mother's Day Card"), recommends lusty human devotion as an alternative to drugs ("Hooked on You") and touts personal responsibility ("You Brought It on Yourself"). Behind the board, Smith touches on all of hip- hop's current sonic trendsetters, from LL Cool J to Full Force to Rick Rubin to Run-DMC, making Open Sesame an exciting sampler of rap styles. Whodini may not have a sound of their own, but they synthesize with flair.

[Ira Robbins]