Kool Moe Dee was one of the first rappers I ever knew. This is mostly due to this ’87 song, “How Ya Like Me Now”, and its companion hit from the same album, “Wild, Wild West.” What I couldn’t possibly know at that time, was that Moe Dee is one of the fathers of rap itself, one of the first lyrical technicians to explore many features of rap that later masters like Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, and even late masters like Eminem, would base their styles on. By ’87, Moe Dee was on his second solo LP after years as a member of the early rap crew, The Treacherous Three. He had also graduated from college with a degree in Communications. Moe Dee is from Harlem, New York City, which has long had a reputation of being the stylistic capital of Black America. This was reflected in Moe Dee’s slick leather outfits, knee-length boots, Leather “Golden Child” kufi’s, and Geordi LaForge oversized ski shades. And his old school Soul and Hip Hop orientation were exemplified by the way he hit cool, smooth dance steps while backed up by sharp-dressed dancers. It all added up to a package that I think was far more enticing to middle-aged Black music fans than the majority of rappers. And while Run DMC crossed Hip Hop over into the big money MTV, Pop/Rock audience, Moe Dee was successful in crossing Hip Hop over into the world of R&B radio, which is why I heard this song and “Wild, Wild West” alongside other songs from 1987 such as Alexander O’Neal’s “Fake.” And that laid a major foundation for the success other artists would very soon have in the next two years of the ’80s and the early ’90s
The heat that Moe Dee builds on in this song is a fued that he picked with the hottest solo M.C of the era, L.L Cool J. On the cover of his album, he has a bell-shaped Kangol of the type L.L Cool J wore underneath his Jeep. The accusation? That L.L was getting PAID (DUHHHH!) using his rap style. This all seems like typical rapper drama until you realize that for a lyrical pioneer like Moe Dee, who was in his late ’20s, which was territory no rapper had entered before, this was serious business, his livelihood. And I’ve learned in recent years that to the extent L.L based his style on that of T La Rock, who was the brother of Moe Dee’s Treacherous Three partner, Special K. And L.L in that era did have a penchant for vocabulary busting rhymes that Moe Dee and The Treacherous Three perfected.
The music of “How Ya Like Me Now” and who produced it is part of its historical appeal. “How Ya Like Me Now”, much like “Go See The Doctor” on Moe Dee’s previous album, were produced by the young Teddy Riley, who was making his breakthrough at that time. Teddy is truly one of the key figures in music over the past 30 years because of the way he mixed musicianship with Hip Hop sensibilities. Taking over from where Run DMC and Whodini producer Larry Smith left off, Teddy regularly produced both Hip Hop and R&B, keeping a funky street edge in R&B, and adding smooth musicality to Hip Hop. His incorporation of the swing of Go-Go would soon become THE beat for Hip Hop, and would be felt even after the music got much more spare in instrumentation.
For “How Ya Like Me Now”, Teddy delivers a hell of a groove, a funky, swinging James Brown influenced creation that took advantage of the new sampling technology in ways that sounded more like music and less like samples. The drumbeat is swinging and has ghost notes just like Clyde Stubblefield would play with JB. The sampled horn blasts hit hard on the “One”, much like Jam and Lewis did on “Fake”, and are then followed by a swinging James Brown-style horn part. The track is very bouncy, with a sprightly stop and start feeling. It finesses Moe Dee’s martial theme, floating like a butterfly around the lyrical battle ring, like a musical Muhammed Ali. On the bridge, Riley uses the synth horns to restate Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker’s “Salt Peanuts” theme. Which is both an example of an early, Pre Gang Star jazziness in Hip Hop, and also a throwback to the Sugarhill Records era practice of interpolation, which would be key in the future of Hip Hop as artists like Dr. Dre and The Neptunes endeavored to sample less, and play more music.
“I…….throw my tape on/and I watch ya/three seconds later/I got ya…”, Moe Dee begins his rhyme, and it is an excellent one, simple on the face of it, but truly an exercise in perfect rhymes, multiple rhymes, and subtle rhythms, as well structured as an essay. It exemplifies Moe Dee’s focus on “sticking to themes” and his pride in being able to rhyme coherently without digressing. One of my favorite lines is “Rap is an art/and I’m like Picasso.” Now for a while I thought Moe Dee was taking the easy way out because Picasso is the most famous artist of the 20th Century. So did he mean he was simply the best artist in Hip Hop? But Picasso wasn’t known for painting pretty pictures, which Moe Dee does here with a sharp, precise rhyme. Picasso took a little bit from here, and a little bit from there, so is a rap artist being like Picasso a reference to how rappers take words and expressions from everywhere, or Hip Hop music takes beats that might not seem to belong together and puts them together? Whatever he meant, its the one line I got when I asked a friend to quote a Moe Dee rhyme a few years back.
Back when I was a kid when my Uncles and Uncle figures talked about rap, they were talking about Moe Dee. The “How Ya Like Me Now” video and performance footage exhibit how Moe Dee took sharp technical rap and put it with the traditional showmanship and sharp dressing of R&B, Soul, and Funk. That is a package that would totally disappear in the ’90s and I have never been satisfied with Hip Hop since. Maybe Diddy tried to revive it but he was nowhere near as skilled an M.C as the great Moe Dee!!! But the fact that Moe Dee was able to do it here is an example of why that was a special time for music all across the board!
As a bonus, Moe Dee’s performance on Soul Train, where he seemed to be on that shortlist of M.C’s Don Cornelius dug!