It’s been 25 years since Organized Konfusion––that’s Prince Po and Pharoahe Monch––released their sophomore record, “Stress: The Extinction Agenda”. Not only is it one of the greatest underground hip-hop records of all time, it’s a crowning achievement of the genre’s richest decade.
The new millennium hasn’t been an easy one.
It’s a comment you could level at any era in history, but there’s something particularly apocalyptic about this modern age, one seemingly defined by inescapable conflict, economic collapse and unprecedented environmental crisis. The nightly news is so dire, it’s easy to forget that The Extinction Agenda has been in effect for a whole 25 years.
Organized Konfusion––that’s producer/emcees Pharoahe Monch and Prince Po––never wanted to destroy the earth. Their subject was the rap game and the rap game alone, dismembering so-called threats and self-proclaimed competitors with their furious fusion of anxious instrumentals and lofty lyrics. When Monch raps about whipping the beat, changing its religion and cutting off its feet, you can’t help but believe him: his vicious snarl, fuelled by audible contempt, is tantamount to the threats themselves. In listening to the vivid assault, we’re all witness to his powers of musical mutilation.
Po, too, is no meagre emcee. On “The Extinction Agenda,” he christens himself “the original aborigine,” a fearsome threat to the bureaucrats and politicians that seek to maintain the unjust status quo. As “the undercover rebel of rap,” Po’s “attacking the ones who’s attacking blacks,” repelling the tyrannical efforts of those who seek to subjugate him. It feels fitting that the album fell the same year as Clinton’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the notorious Biden-penned bill that disproportionately targeted African-Americans, helping institute the current system of mass incarceration, depriving inmates of higher education opportunities, encroaching on freedom of association by criminalising gang membership, and ushering in a three-strikes provision. None of this was lost on the Poetical Prince.
Nonetheless, as I revisit Stress: The Extinction Agenda, I can’t help but feel the wailing horns and ruthless raps speak to our current age of worry. There’s a real sense of anxiety in the dizzying instrumentals, which find Po and Monch bouncing off the ever-shifting sonic walls. The moments of tranquility are intercut with chaos, and the chaos is intercut with further anarchy. In the middle of “Stress,” filled to the brim with the anxious strain, a brief skit ends with the cold-blooded murder of a taxi driver. It’s a nightmarish escalation by way of an offhand comment, a vicious attack presented as unremarkable.
Indeed, the deluge of news––now instantaneous and ever-accessible––has morphed onetime horrors to everyday occurrences. The more we hear about the world, the less shocks us. Elsewhere, prejudice has been galvanised, partisanship has only increased and onetime political mores have been upended without any real sociopolitical progress. We might have weathered a quarter century, but what do we have to show for those arduous years? Make no mistake: The Extinction Agenda is still in full effect.
In celebration of Organized Konfusion’s essential sophomore effort, we’re breaking down the samples––at least the ones we know about––that make up the classic Queens LP!
Stress: The Extinction Agenda – Sampling & Production Dive
There’s just the one sample at play on “Intro,” the OK-produced opener that leads into the title tracks. The uneasy bass riff that opens the album is courtesy of jazz guitarist George Benson, who included the song in question––“California Dreaming”––on his 1971 LP, White Rabbit. That track, produced by Creed Taylor, is a cover of the classic John and Michelle Phillips cut, made famous in 1965 by The Mamas and The Papas. Benson’s rendition features fellow jazz legends Herbie Hancock on electric piano and Billy Cobham on drums, and has also been sampled by Masta Ace Incorporated, Trina & Tamara and J. Rawls.
Like “Intro” before it, “Stress” opens with a distinctive bass sample. This riff is lifted from The Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s “Last Hope’s Gone,” a 1968 album cut from the Chicago-based blues/soul outfit. It was included on In My Own Dream, the group’s fourth studio LP, which continued their stylistic evolution, making greater use of their newly-inducted horn section and experimenting with new soul textures. It was both critically and commercially less successful than their preceding records and, after producing two more albums, the group disbanded in 1971. Butterfield died as a result of opioid addiction brought on by his many peritonitis surgeries: he was just 44-years-old.
The chaotic and disorienting horns that cultivate the titular stress are provided courtesy of American bassist Charles Mingus, though it’s clear that Mingus himself didn’t play the lick itself. Mingus was writer and arranger of “Mingus Fingus No. 2,” included on 1961’s Pre-Bird, later reissued as Mingus Revisited. The song was recorded on May 24, 1960 in New York, and the credited players included alto saxophonist John LaPorta, baritone saxophonist Danny Bank, trombonists Charles Greenlee, Eddie Bert and Slide Hampton, and trumpeters Clark Terry, Hobart Dotson, Marcus Belgrave, Richard Williams and Ted Curson. There’s a lot of brassy (and woodwindy) depth to the anxiety-inducing loop, in part because of the sheer number of session musicians.
Hard rock and hip hop don’t go as hand-in-hand as they did during the mid-to-late ‘80s, but OG Woodstock act Mountain have managed to stay a staple of hip hop culture despite their lineage. “Long Red,” a track recorded live at the legendary 1969 festival and included on 1971’s Mountain Live: The Road Goes Ever On, is famous due to both the break within and the ad-libs from lead singer Leslie West. Producer Buckwild makes use of the drumbeat at 0:31, right as Prince Po begins his first verse.
“The Extinction Agenda”
Less chaotic and more psychedelic, the second title track finds Organized Konfusion both behind the decks and on the mic. The intricate instrumental which opens the track is “Rain Dance,” a cut from Herbie Hancock’s 1973 LP, Sextant. The acclaimed avant-garde jazz record is comprised of just three extended tracks, of which “Rain Dance” is the first. OK were amongst the first acts to sample this specific jam, though it previously appeared on a track from Digable Planets’ acclaimed debut.
Are you at all surprised that the ad-libs scratched into the mix belong to James Brown, the godfather of soul and good family friend of hip-hop? Though there’s many reasons as to why Brown is the most widely sampled artist of all time, some of his most distinctive flips make use of his vocals, turning his funky punctuation into punched phrases. “Funky Drummer,” sampled here, also features a famous breakbeat from onetime Brown drummer Clyde Stubblefield who, despite his legendary contributions to the culture, lived in reverent obscurity until his death in 2017.
The brief lick that first appears at 0:51 originally opened Joe Farrell’s “Moon Germs,” the title track from his 1972 studio album. The Creed Taylor-produced record was the fourth from the saxophonist, who’d previously played as a sideman for George Benson, The Band and Chick Corea. Farrell died of myelodysplastic syndrome aged just 48, and in 2008, his daughter sued Kanye, Method Man and Common over samples of her late father’s work. In 2010, the presiding judge issued an “ORDER OF DISCONTINUANCE WITH PREJUDICE,” a final judgement that seemingly dismissed the case. I really can’t be sure, though. I’m not a lawyer!
Buckwild opens “Thirteen,” a three-verse solo cut from Pharoahe Monch, with a well-worn but largely unrecognisable track. The riff that opens the song is purportedly a slowed-down flip of the opening to “UFO,” an essential piece of hip hop history. It was recorded in 1981 by Bronx-based no-wave band ESG, comprised of four sisters and their family friend, in Manchester, England. DJ Dr. Rock of the Force MD’s was the first to see the potential of the track’s signature riff, using it on 1982’s “Live At Spring Valley, Part 1.” You’ve likely heard it on joints from Dilla, Big Daddy Kane, Biggie, Public Enemy and Tupac.
The vocal refrain––“rock rock, wit’ ya bad self”––is a direct sample of Dr. Dre’s 1992 “Dre Day” b-side, “Puffin’ on Blunts and Drankin’ Tanqueray.” The vocal is a distorted sample of The Lady of Rage, the Death Row-affiliated emcee who features alongside Tha Dogg Pound. Though she released one solo record––1997’s Necessary Roughness––Lady of Rage is best known for her work alongside Dre and Snoop in the early-to-mid-’90s.
There’s one last vocal sample pulled from yet another hip-hop jam, though you’re unlikely to have spotted it. The yelling that’s quietly scratched into the refrain is courtesy of LL Cool J, the legendary golden age Queens emcee, who bellowed on his 1987 hit single, “I’m Bad.” As is often the case with golden age hits, “I’m Bad” has become a staple in its own right: though it samples just four tracks itself, it’s been flipped over 50 times, more recently on cuts from Little Brother, Bun B and Eminem.
It’s very easy to get the impression that sampling is necessarily the juxtaposition of separate elements, but that’s not true at all. Some samples, like this flip of Eugene McDaniels’ “Jagger The Dagger,” stand alone as perfect loops. It’s easy to see why the instrumental opening works so well: it’s a plodding four-bar beat, both intricate and versatile, the perfect blend of furnished and free. Whilst some producers, such as The Bomb Squad, are experts at microsampling, others, such as Madlib and Kanye, are talented at identifying extended passages ripe for a flip.
[no identified samples]
“Bring It On”
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Another production from D.I.T.C. member Buckwild, “Why” opens with an ambling passage from Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and the Trinity’s “Light My Fire.” The UK-based prog rock act included their version of The Doors’ classic hit on 1969’s Streetnoise, an acclaimed double-LP featuring both covers and original compositions. The song opens the second side of the first record, which was subtitled “KISS HIM QUICK, HE HAS TO PART” in the original release. Though Buckwild was the first to sample the track, he wasn’t the only one with the idea: N.O. Joe, Mike Dean and Scarface put it to use just two months later on Scarface’s The Diary single, “I Seen A Man Die.”
The drums that enter at 0:11 are lifted from Little Richard’s “The Rill Thing,” the title cut from his 1970 LP. That record was a comeback effort from the singer, who’d fallen to the wayside during the mid-’60s, and though it didn’t chart, the album was purportedly a return to the fore. Usually, I’d spotlight the work of the session musician who actually played the drums in question, but three songs from The Rill Thing––of which the title track is one––are without personnel records. Whoever it is, they deserve props: their work has been sampled on cuts from Pete Rock, Gravediggaz, Common, Eminem, KMD and Dr. Octagon.
The drums switch up at 2:45, where there’s an almost-seamless switch between two different breaks. The first, as we know, is from “The Rill Thing,” and the second, as we’re now learning, is from Motherlode’s “Soft Shell.” The two tracks were actually both released in 1969, though Motherlode’s cut failed to channel the success––critical or otherwise––of their British contemporaries. “Soft Shell” was included on their debut record, When I Die, the title track from which remains their sole charting single. Though admittedly a one-hit wonder, the Canadian band has since become an infrequent source of samples, with “Soft Shell” alone gracings jams from A$AP Rocky, DJ Shadow, Gang Starr, Digable Planets and Cozz.
Though “Let’s Organize,” with its verses from Q-Tip and O.C., seems like an ideal single, it was never issued as a promotional track. It makes use of a brief instrumental passage from Patrice Rushen’s “Kickin’ Back,” a 1975 cut that’s only been sampled this once. Sadly, that’s all we can say for certain about this tune: even 25 years on, the source of the horns remain a mystery.
Today, “Let’s Organize” is notable for being the sole Stress: The Extinction Agenda cut on streaming services, thanks to its inclusion on the soundtrack to Keenan Ivory Wayans’ 1994 action comedy, A Low Down Dirty Shame. That compilation was put out on Hollywood Records, whose short-lived hip-hop subsidiary, Hollywood BASIC, released OK’s sophomore album just three months prior.
If “Let’s Organize” feels glossy and tight, “3-2-1” is a more lighthearted and revelrous affair. The vocals at the open are scrappy and irreverent, and the energy throughout is more spontaneous and fun than many of the nonetheless impressive and enjoyable jams. It certainly helps that the underlying sample, which is lifted from Blue Mitchell’s “Melody For Thelma,” is so peppy. That track was originally included on Stratosonic Nuances, a 1975 LP released during Mitchell’s brief RCA era. Though he’d been signed to Blue Note throughout the ‘60s, the last years of his career found him without a long term label. In 1979, aged just 49, Blue Mitchell died of cancer.
“Keep It Koming”
The slick piano lick that opens “Keep It Koming” is the work of The Ramsay Lewis Trio. “Opus V” originally appeared on 1969’s Another Voyage, and though it’s not a cover, the track wasn’t written by any of the outfits members. Producer and musician Charles Stepney penned the song, and whilst he didn’t produce or otherwise contribute to this particular record, his long-standing relationship with the group––fostered initially by his fathers ownership of Chess Records, on which this album was released––is well documented.
A less immediately recognisable sample, this flip of Cannonball Adderley’s “Sack O’Woe” forms the instrumental backbone of the track without coming to define it. The measured bassline and a crisp cadence are overcome by both OK’s passionate delivery and their disorienting horn samples, which have become something of a stylistic tenet. The 1975 jam has been sampled just twice––Solephonics made use of it in 2007––but Cannonball’s rendition itself is a cover of Nat Adderley’s 1960 original, which has since been covered by acts such as George Benson and Manfred Mann.
The remarkable thing about this drum sample is just how seamlessly it slips into the mix, barely attracting any attention to itself as it comes to propel the song. The track in question is “Wah Wah Man” by Young-Holt Unlimited, and it marks the second appearance of both Isaac Holt and Eldee Young on this very cut. Holt and Young were both members of Ramsay Lewis Trio and, after leaving the group in 1966, they formed Young-Holt Unlimited. “Wah Wah Man” was included on 1971’s Born Again, the tenth of the twelve albums they released in their seven year stint. This particular song has proved popular: it’s been put to use on tracks from Cypress Hill, EPMD, Ultramagnetic MC’s, Masta Ace Incorporated, Big L, and, most recently, Kendrick Lamar.
On “Stray Bullet,” Pharoahe and Po put their considerable poetry to use personifying an errant shell and exploring the havoc it wreaks on the innocent. The spacey instrumental over which they elaborate is the work of Donald Byrd, the prolific hard bop legend and jazz fusion pioneer. “Wind Parade” is taken from Byrd’s 1975 Blue Note LP, Places and Spaces, which was released in the midst of his preoccupation with funk and disco-inspired arrangements. Interestingly, Organized Konfusion’s gun-fearing allegory fell two whole years before Nas’ “I Gave You Power,” a better known example of the very same narrative.
The refrain that first enters at 1:48––“nobody seen shit, nobody heard it”––comes from the pen of Kool G Rap, the onetime Mafioso rap pioneer. It’s taken from Kool G Rap and DJ Polo’s “Death Wish,” a cut included on 1990’s Wanted: Dead Or Alive, which featured some of G Rap’s most vivid depictions of crime. The full bar, which further contextualises OK’s use of the sample, is:
“You got struck by a fucking revenger
A bullet inserted in your head, a shot got
Murdered, nobody seen shit, nobody heard it…”
At the time this track was released, G Rap was yet to return to the scene as a solo artist. He would do so the following year, with 1995’s 4,5,6, a powerful affirmation of his place as mafioso’s originator.
There’s nothing that quite sounds like Bob James’ “Nautilus,” and that’s why there’s a good chance you’d recognise the spacey passage that enters at 2:00. James has had remarkable success as a sampled artist, and “Nautilus” sits alongside his cover of Paul Simon’s “Take Me To The Mardi Gras” as tracks that have been sampled more than 300 times. In 1994 alone, the 1974 tune was sampled by Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock, Kwamé, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, Jeru the Damaja and Ultramagnetic MC’s.
The fourth and final sample on “Stray Bullet” comes in the form of an interpolation. It’s not the first time that Organized Konfusion have shown love to Patrice Rushen, a jazz-pop crossover act who shares little with Pharoahe and Po’s confrontational style––her memorable “Kickin’ Back” instrumental was previously sampled on “Let’s Organize.” Nonetheless, “Stray Bullet” suggests that Po may be the foremost Rushen fan, as he croons the titular phrase from “Forget Me Nots” at 2:40. That very specific phrase had a strong resurgence in the mid-’90s, featuring on hits from both Will Smith (“Men In Black”) and George Michael (“Fastlove”).
As far as James Brown samples go, this one is pretty interestingly composed: it takes two distinct notes and juxtaposes them against one another to create a sonically distinct but otherwise new loop. The track in question is Brown’s “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved,” a 1970 single that’s since proved fertile ground for both vocal and instrumental flips. Though Brown samples were widespread in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, this element marks the second and final occasion Brown’s appeared on Stress: The Extinction Agenda. He did pop up on the group’s self-titled debut, with 1969’s “Lowdown Popcorn” providing a funky instrumental for “Audience Pleasers.” That one was an inspired choice: the song’s only ever been sampled six times.
Five Stairsteps are an interesting group. The soul outfit was comprised of all but one of the Burke family’s children, and their parents––Betty and Clarence Sr.––helped steer the then-popular act. Betty gave them the name, based on their staggered heights, and Clarence Sr., a Chicago PD detective, played bass alongside them.
The drum break that enters “Maintain” at 0:32 is taken from “Don’t Change Your Love,” one of their modest late-’60s hits, and though it found only mild success at the time, the track was later featured on the Ultimate Breaks and Beats compilation and has since been sampled on songs from Kendrick, Tribe, Biggie, Cube and Del.
Prince Po and Pharoahe Monch: Hip-Hop History Incarnate
Whilst emceeing is itself an intricate art, the flawed idea that wholly individual artistic pursuits are loftier than collaborative records continues to stick around, lending itself to a bizarre culture of reverence. How many times did Cole go platinum, again?
There’s nothing necessarily good about an aversion to collaboration: it’s the quality of the product, irrespective of the process, that defines a legacy. Stress: The Extinction Agenda saw Organized Konfusion embracing new collaborative efforts whilst continuing to hone their impressive command of both beats and bars. Though the multi-producer record was popularised by fellow Queens luminary Nas, whose Illmatic featured six external producers, Organized Konfusion were responsible for most of their own production. It’s a trend that started with their eponymous 1991 debut, on which all the tracks were credited to their collective banner.
The Extinction Agenda brought two new names into the fold. D.I.T.C. member Buckwild was responsible for “Stress,” “Thirteen” and “Why,” the latter also credited to OK themselves, and Rockwilder helmed album closer “Maintain,” his sole credit on the record. These two external inclusions would foreshadow the duo’s third and final LP, 1997’s The Equinox, which featured two contributions from Buckwild, one from Rockwilder, and a handful from other producers such as Showbiz, Diamond D, Rasheed and Caspa.
That record, which featured some of their most audacious and ambitious concepts, was a success dragged down by the duo’s own exceptionalism. Only in comparison to their first two records––two of the best hip-hop releases of an already-legendary decade––could a record such as The Equinox be considered a failure. In the years since, discussion of that album has generally latched onto three details: firstly, the concept that unites the entire LP, stitched together through skits brimming with a cast of characters, and lastly, tracks “Hate” and “Invetro,” both imbued with their own lofty concepts. “Hate” found Po and Monch rhyming as white supremacists, unravelling the disturbing inner thoughts of the very ideologues who would object to their very existence:
“Aw, you are sadly mistaken if you think my Aryan race
Can be taken out by the likes of you apes, kikes
Conservative, nigga loving gooks, spooks, and dykes…”
Though not outright personification––white supremacists are people too, though without humanity––it continues the mission of “Stray Bullet,” which found the two emcees voicing a wayward shell.
Another confronting character study, “Invetro” casts the pair as unborn fetuses enduring the punishment of an irresponsible pregnancy. Monch’s character wishes to die before he’s born, whilst Po presents a heartfelt counterpoint hinged on faith and potential. Monch’s narrative remains one of Organized Konfusion’s most distressing personifications:
“I hope she don’t eat pork fried rice tonight
See, the cholesterol already got my arteries tight
I might select even before she injects her lethal chemicals
To wrap the umbilical cords around my neck…”
In a telling 1997 interview, Monch opened up about his process. “Most of the time I second guess my statements. I try to be cautious. Although it’s a conceptual song, I start to question….’Do I really want to say this? Am I saying that or is the character? How are people gonna take it?’ That matters to me.” This kind of deliberation feeds into Monch’s exceptionally honed craft, seemingly substantiating his place as one of the most intellectually stimulating emcees of his era.
So why, then, did one of hip-hop’s most critically acclaimed duos split soon thereafter? “Well we broke up because we didn’t want to hear the fans say the same thing like, ‘You’re dope but you are not getting the right promotion’,” explained Po in 2005. “We had three albums and fans thought we were dope but didn’t have the right promotion. We didn’t want that shit to run us into the ground… we wanted to preserve the name.”
The split of Organized Konfusion was as much an end as it was a new beginning. Monch came out the gate with “Simon Says,” a potent anthem spurred by the might of Godzilla, and Internal Affairs, the acclaimed record it preceded. In 2004, Po signed with Lex Records, releasing his own well-received debut, The Slickness. It featured a host of guest producers, including Danger Mouse, Madlib, Richard X and J-Zone, though Po himself produced two of the twelve cuts. The caliber of these producers was mirrored in the featured artists––MF Doom, Raekwon, Jemeni The Gifted One––forming a roster reflective of Po’s own reverence within the underground hip-hop community.
The years since their respective debuts have brought forth a variety of acclaimed efforts and inspired collaborations. Monch dropped Desire, his long-awaited sophomore record, in 2007, and his two subsequent albums, W.A.R. and P.T.S.D., explored artistic independence and race relations in the United States to almost uniform praise. Po released Prettyblack and Saga of the Simian Samurai in 2006 and 2007, an independent one-two that saw Po go from OK alumni to his own artist entirely. It wouldn’t be until 2014 that Po linked up with Oh No for Animal Serum, which contained standout “Smash,” an informal Organized Konfusion reunion.
The chances of an actual reunion remain slim. “Possibly,” said Po, forecasting a record for “the Fall of 2006.” It never eventuated. In 2010, Monch claimed that a string of live shows bode well for fans awaiting their fabled fourth LP, but again, this hope was misplaced. In the lead up to PTSD, Monch was a lot more noncommittal about the possibility of a reunion. “Six words. Who knows what the future holds?” A philosophical answer from a truly cerebral emcee, but 22 years on from The Equinox, another Organized Konfusion record seems less likely than ever.
Hold out though we may, there’s something to be said for the relevance of the three-album catalogue the duo left behind. Stress: The Extinction Agenda holds up as an evergreen evisceration of the “new world order” that only becomes more relevant as the years bear down. Their greater catalogue is similarly relevant: the vivid illustrations of racist hate and dark depictions of drug addiction and neglect are made more potent by the spectre of modern extremism and the devastating opioid epidemic sweeping the United States. Monch may present himself as a “poetical poltergeist,” mining the past for his verbose rhymes, but he’s turned out a prescient philosopher, inadvertently anticipating a future largely unchanged.
The characters are new, the faces fresh, but the show goes on, tropes and trifles cycling on and on. Stress: The Extinction Agenda is, at 25, both a mid-’90s relic and an indictment of our own collective indifference. The horns are still squealing; the anxieties still accruing; the walls still closing in. Even in the harshest moments, Monch tells us, there’s one thing left to do:
“Be all you can be and maintain / gotta maintain…”