The song: “Cosmic Ark'”
The producer: X-Clan
The science: When it comes to X-Clan, almost all the discussion is about the group’s breakout debut LP, To the East, Blackwards, with the remaining discussion being focused on septum rings, ankhs, and “sissssiiiiiiiieeeees!” As such, the follow-up album, Xodus, tends to get lost in the mix. On the rare occasion it does get mentioned, it’s usually to talk about the amount of beat biting going on throughout the album. It’s not exactly a false charge: “F.T.P.” straight-up takes Special Ed’s “I Got It Made” beat and adds a few sounds to it, the title track stomps along with D-Nice’s “Call me D-Nice” getting looped up with the “Big Beat” drums locked in, and MC Lyte (“Paper Thin”), LL Cool J (“Big Ol’ Butt”) and Terminator X (“Terminator X Buck Whylin’”) all get jacked on “Holy Rum Swig.”
But don’t let the rampant beat-jacking make you think X-Clan suddenly forgot how to make beats. The first single off the album, “Fire & Earth (100% Natural)” showed real production skills, and the lead-off song on the album, “Cosmic Ark,” is an underappreciated bit of production work that shows real sampling creativity.
The first bit of music you hear in the beat is the haunting horns from Average White Band’s “Would You Stay.” Those horns will come in and out of the beat over the course of the song, but they’re at their strongest here, setting the stage for the track. And as Brother J goes into his first verse, the full beat kicks in, propelled by a clever chop of Gwen McCrae’s “Funky Sensation.”
The McCrae is somewhat low in the mix, but really, it’s the backbone of the whole track. The drums are a half-bar chop of a simple kick-snare pattern with an extra snare hitting right before the kick, but the real creativity is in using McCrae’s vocals—she chants a syncopated “yeah” after every other beat, culminating in a “are you feeling this funk?”-style “uh-uh!” every other bar. The effect is Gwen McCrae in the background, egging on Brother J’s vocals, then adding her assent to his punchlines, like she’s right there in the booth with him, feeling what he’s saying.
The combined drums and vocals of “Funky Sensation” also provide the template for the drums, a snip of Sly Stone’s infamous “Sing a Simple Song” drums. The drum pattern is very choppy—particularly the use (or non-use) of the hi-hat following the snare—in a way that suggests a happy accident in drum programming like the one that gave “Top Billin’” its signature stutter. But the way the skipping drum pattern locks in with the Gwen McRae track, in particular the double snare that hits with the “uh-uh!” vocals is a little too perfect to be an accident. It’s a fully intentional rhythm, one that’s a bit out of the norm for hip-hop patterns, but still very precise and very funky.
I remember years ago trying to do a record with Brother J (sadly, it never panned out), and while we were discussing beats, he was adamant that they have a “skip” to them. “Cosmic Ark” is exactly what he was talking out.