When Anthrax released its 1987 EP I’m The Man, you could have heard a pin drop on what was called then Album Oriented Rock radio. By then, Anthrax had cemented itself as one of thrash’s Big Four with Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth. Joey Belladonna’s vocal dexterity led the band to their greatest heights on AOR with songs like “Caught in a Mosh,” “I Am the Law” and “Madhouse.” Back then, radio was less avoidant of metal, and many of the legendary bands we know today benefitted greatly by this more tolerant era in media. Such is the case with Ghoul and Ill Bill‘s Split release.
Then, AOR was, quite openly in many markets, at war with what was referred to as the Black/Urban radio format, which was gaining a crossover audience. Black/Urban radio is where hip-hop found its first broadcast home. Whodini, Egyptian Lover and Kurtis Blow would pave the way, but LL Cool J would blow open the doors with 1985’s Radio. LL’s confidence, good looks and star quality would send him into the stratosphere, and make commercial radio available to Run DMC, Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys and many others. Certainly feeling some of that pressure, AOR doubled down on its rock fidelity, while making space for more mainstream hard rock/pop performers, like Whitesnake, to appeal to wider audiences.
In this environment, it was hard for AOR to not see I’m The Man as treasonous. The EP, which featured live footage and a cover of “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” included the rap/metal song “I’m The Man.” Although obviously intended as humorous (“Charlie, beat the beats, the beats you beat/The only thing harder’s the smell of my feet/So listen up ’cause you might get dissed” were among the lines), AOR DJs nationwide sputtered over the air about the track. They had been betrayed by one of their own, and they were mad.
Anthrax would, of course, survive the controversy and even team up with Public Enemy in 1991 for a thrash version of PE’s career-making cut “Bring the Noise” – a move that foreshadowed Chuck D’s work with Prophets of Rage today. And hip-hop would ascend to where it is now, the predominant popular music genre. Metal and hip-hop would cross paths again, most notably on the 1993 motion picture soundtrack for Judgment Night. Therein, pairings like Ice-T and Slayer, Biohazard and Onyx and Sonic Youth and Cypress Hill created some of the more adventurous songs of the era.
So, all that in mind, you cannot hear the new split by thrash metal’s Ghoul and Non-Phixion/La Coka Nostra veteran Ill Bill without a hint of awe at where these genres have been and how they come together.
This split has all the makings of synergy, frankly. Ghoul has always had a flair for the creepy, not to mention the flashy. Ill Bill is brother and collaborator of horrorcore pioneer Necro, and he features Goretex, with whom he teamed in the Circle of Tyrants project, released in 2005. “Pentagram” is not Bill’s best work (his Heavy Metal Kings effort with Vinnie Paz and Kill Devil Hills with DJ Muggs could be considered up there), but it is vintage Bill. Over a languid beat, he spits the rugged street rhymes of drugs, shootings and power that have built his career. Caucasian rappers of his time period oftentimes went the extreme lyrics route of Eminem, Insane Clown Posse and Necro, as did Ill Bill for a moment. A decade and a half in, Bill, like his contemporaries, is now akin to Ghostface Killah, more storyteller than shooter and doing it in a more self-assured fashion. “Pentagram” is a good introduction to an artist you should know by now.
On “Splatterthrash 2: Thrash Damage,” Ghoul are at their rancorous peak, machine-gun lyrics blasting at you like an Ill Bill verse. The Oakland group is always a fun listen because of the proclivity toward characters and storylines. And here, the freewheeling music is catharsis from Bill’s terse wordplay. To see this team-up, not so many years removed from the squabbles I’m The Man ignited, should be a reminder of both how exceptional these performers are, and how times have changed.