A brilliant Prince of low-key hip-hop, Michael Ivey (vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards, programming) made the first Basehead album while studying film at Howard University in the nation’s capital. Other than another Pittsburgh native, Brian Hendrix, on drums and DJ Paul Howard kicking in delicate scratches, Play With Toys is a one-man endeavor — and a masterful, unique accomplishment. (The critic who characterized it as “Galaxie 500 meets De La Soul” wasn’t far off the mark; the subsequent emergence of Spearhead offers another point of reference for the blunted geniality of Basehead’s lazy funk.)
Ivey brings amazing imagination to bear on the task of filling a record with engrossing music: the surreal sonic experience integrates songs with settings that repeatedly upend the musician’s usual role in making a record. There’s fake stage work (the intro has “Jethro and the Graham Crackers” giving James Brown a cornpone country poke), dialogues (the soulful “Ode to My Favorite Beer” is offered in response to a pal’s request to hear what Ivey is working on; the slo-blo funk of “Evening News” stops for a bit of channel surfing and gets creative direction from other viewers, who end up arguing as Ivey jams away in the background) and fourth-wall-busting breaks in the lyrical action. “Hair,” a softly sung complaint of infidelity set to a spare, juicy groove and the sampled sound of a woman moaning, is interrupted by a scabrous remark from the woman being sung to; Ivey’s answer restarts the song. The most alluring track — the gorgeous, atmospheric romance of “Not Over You” — has to end so the friend with whom the dispirited singer is hanging can search the radio for a song to brighten his mood. After drifting through the quiet storm and a Bill Withers oldie, the dial alights on…”Not Over You.” Ingenious. Evidently incapable of repeating himself, thoughtful in his social and political observations, winningly charismatic and musically generous, Michael Ivey is an incredible talent, and Play With Toys is one of hip-hop’s finest (40-minute) hours. (The “BC” in the album track pulled off for a single refers to brain cells.)
The similarly constructed Not in Kansas Anymore is a shade less ambitious but nearly as good. The advent of harsher lyrics tests the skillful music’s unfailing good mood without doing any serious damage. Ivey’s obsessions here are honest sex (both “Do You Wanna Fuck (Or What)?” and “Nite Out on the Town” express doubts about the sincerity of the mating ritual), the smokable solution (“I Need a Joint,” “Pass the Thought”), racism (the two-part “Brown Kisses,” “Shouldna Dunnit,” “Split Personality”) and violence (“Greener Pastures”), but the album also includes thoughts about pets (“Fluffy and Richard”) and growing up (“Not the Same”). Hendrix is still on hand; a full live band performed three of the tracks.
Ivey next continued along his singular path with B.Y.O.B, a sort-of group in which he relinquishes exclusive songwriting rights and has lots more instrumental and vocal assistance than in Basehead. B.Y.O.B (don’t ask me where that last period went; the record makes a running joke of what the acronym stands for), as a result, has more straight-up hip-hop beats — as well as some go-go (Clarence Greenwood’s “The Rackett”), mushy soul (“Where Ya Going To?” and “Too Good to Let Go,” sung by Justine Hall), even fusion (“Go Jazz Go,” a track that Ivey produced but does not appear on) and trippy instrumental atmospherics (“Outerspacegethithang”). While that makes for a rambly, disjointed album that is more energetic and less engaging than prior Basehead releases, Ivey does make sure to get some pointed ideas across. Using a telephoned invitation to a B.Y.O.B. “party in your mind” as a schematic catalyst, the sprawling tracks articulately excoriate role-playing-in the pretense of gangsta rap (“Change It”), political correctness, the acceptance of crack and guns, fake celebrations of freedom and the predictable patterns of sexual and racial behavior. Typical of Ivey’s individuality, the party dialogue of “Rambilfications of Getting & Saying Hi gh” pokes fun at African-American objections to inter-racial dating.
In mid-’96, Ivey revived the Basehead handle and released the all-new Faith album.