The thing you have to understand about Beanie Sigel is he would have rather been at a dog fight. Yes, a very nice near-stranger had invited him to tag along on a trip to New York that could change the course of his life; yes, Too Short was perched in the corner of the lobby in a cream-and-burgundy pinstriped suit (the silk shirt was burgundy too, as was the face of a Rolex that was otherwise gold); yes, Biggs and Dame pulled an annoyed Jay-Z out of the booth while he was recording “A Week Ago” just to hear this stoic dude from Philly snap and rap angrily at a New Yorker who was getting a little out of pocket. But if Beans had his way, he never would have come to the city at all: he had ten grand riding on a pit bull who, he had it on good authority, was a sure thing. “Mike was a grand champ,” he would recount years later. “That was an easy lick right there. Mikey was vicious.”
Mikey the pit bull belonged to another South Philly rapper, Murda Mil. It was a battle with Mil that first made Beans take rap seriously –– until then he and his friends, who were making plenty of illegal money, would scoff at rappers, from the local wannabes to the famous acts they found corny, like Das EFX and Fu-Schnickens. “It wasn’t cool to be a rapper,” he would later say. “We was clowning people who was trying to rap at that time. We was getting money.” And still, Beans teamed up with Mil. Within a few weeks, the pair set up a battle with a duo that was already on, some kids from Southwest named Boo-Bonic and Mr. Man, who collectively went by the name Philly’s Most Wanted. The four young men rapped over Destiny’s Child’s “No, No, No (Part 2)” instrumental. The buzz about PMW seemed to be true, they rapped as if they were ready to sign with a major label. Maybe too ready: last fall, Mil gave his recollection of the battle, saying Boo and Mr. had “an industry type flow –– you would know that the hook was supposed to come on after they was done rapping.”
Mil and Beans say they won, the other side probably feels differently. But Boo-Bonic and Mr. Man were impressed enough by Beans that they asked for his phone number. Two days later, they called with the offer: come to New York with us.
The PMW guys were heading to the city to meet with Roc-A-Fella, hoping to secure a deal. But when a battle broke out in the studio lobby –– instigated by Dame, naturally, who had nothing kind to say about Philadelphia –– it was Beans who caught the ear of the Roc-A-Fella braintrust, who liked him so much that they initially mistook him for a New Yorker. That led to Dame and Biggs yanking Jay from the booth, which led to the paperwork, which led to the verse on “Reservoir Dogs” from Jay’s blockbuster Vol 2… Hard Knock Life, which led to a solo career that would make Beans the most visible solo rapper from Philly since Will Smith.
None of that happened to Philly’s Most Wanted. Less than two years after that meeting in the lobby, Beans –– with a handful of high-profile cameos already under his belt –– was putting the finishing touches on his debut album, The Truth. Jay had finally broken through to become a superstar, and was bringing the whole Roc with him. More than that, he was starting to eye Philadelphia’s rap scene as a sort of personal project, and would begin snatching up act after act from the city. Meanwhile, the pair of rappers who brought Beans to New York in the first place, the ones who had seemed to be on the cusp for months on end, languished at one label, and then another. Whether at Atlantic or Universal, Boo and Mr. would say in the years to come that they were mistreated by executives and not properly looked out for by their own management. They were gifted an album’s worth of beats by the hottest production duo in the world, but the larger machine never whirred to life.
It was more than a year after The Truth hit stores that Get Down or Lay Down, PMW’s woozy, scowling debut album, would finally be released. That was August 2001. It was produced almost entirely by the Neptunes, who had already broken through and were in the midst of carving a niche as album-length auteurs. (Just Blaze pitched in, too.) It’s not radical, and it’s not a masterpiece, but it’s fun, it’s mean, it knocks, its grooves and its sneered asides stick in your brain. It sounds, in other words, like it should have sold. But even in an era when CDs flew off retail shelves –– an era when the balance of rap power still tilted toward the East coast –– the album stalled, never getting higher than No. 69 on the Billboard 200.
As a creative effort, Get Down or Lay Down is cool, composed, and never overreaches; its commercial failure was fittingly unspectacular. It was death by a thousand moves of minor mismanagement. It didn’t help that the video for the big single was banned by BET for being too overt in its drug-smuggling ethos. It probably hurt that it came out a month before The Blueprint. The Clipse feature came a year too early. But no factor taken in isolation makes Philly’s Most Wanted’s non-ascent make any more sense. It’s a cruel, arbitrary fate for a very good rap record that, by virtually any measure, should have made its creators bankable for the next decade of their lives. Instead the group was left behind by two runaway trains –– the Neptunes and Roc-A-Fella –– and, just a few years later, simply ceased to exist.
[The FADER was unable to confirm the results of the 1998 dog fight.]
From a distance it looked like The Neptunes could will their friends to stardom. For example: one day in 2001, Pharrell picked up the phone and called Pusha-T, who he’d known for a while and who was part of the duo Clipse, along with his brother Malice. “Come to the studio right now,” Pharrell told Pusha. “If you're not here in 15 minutes…” he threatened, “I know you're home. Your house is 10 minutes from here. That means you've got 5 minutes to get ready and get over here. If not, I'm giving it to Jay.” That beat was “Grindin’.” A year later, the Clipse were stars of a certain kind, so beloved that they would go on to define an era of street rap even while mummified in record label red tape.
But the Clipse’s trajectory was not as smooth as it might seem from a distance, the Neptunes’ will not enforced so easily. By the time they passed them the “Grindin’” beat, Pharrell and Chad had been trying to get Pusha and Malice on for half a decade. The four had written, produced, recorded, and endlessly tinkered with an album that would never see the light of day. It was during this purgatorial stretch when the Neptunes linked up with PMW.
Boo-Bonic and Mr. Man (that’s Al Holly and Joel Witherspoon, respectively; the latter rap name sounds exponentially cooler when it’s given as “M-R-dot,” as it often is in rhymes) met when they were five years old. One of Boo-Bonic’s older cousins was a rapper, which sparked the notion that this might be a doable thing. The biography is not, strictly speaking, an important road in to the music –– they were hustlers, but there are no 92 missing bricks or fits of conscience, you come to hear Mr. say he’s “got more spots than cheetahs.”
As Murda Mil’s initial assessment suggested, the pair seemed tailor-made for turn-of-the-century majors. They rapped in mostly grim, unflinching ways about street shit, peppering their verses with goofy punchlines that were usually delivered with a stone face. They were capital-L Lyrical rappers in an era where that was the expectation for East Coast artists. It made sense that an A&R at their first label, Atlantic, would link them up with Pharrell and Chad. (The label history is deflating and all too ordinary: Get Down or Lay Down sat on the shelf for a year after it was completed, and after the album was released, PMW moved on to an even worse situation at Universal, all while mulling what could have been at Roc-A-Fella.)
Get Down or Lay Down –– here’s where we should take a moment to acknowledge the sheer excellence of that title –– was recorded largely at the Netpunes’ spot in Virginia Beach, with a handful of sessions in Atlanta and Manhattan. The strangest thing about the album, given what we know about its commercial failure, is that it does not sound anything like the label-compromised rap debacles of the ‘90s. There are a few softer, obligatory songs, sure, but the raps skew close enough to the general PMW ethos (and the Neptunes’ beats are creative enough) that nothing here feels slapped together or over-A&R’d. This is a realized vision of what Boo-Bonic and Mr. Man could do with time, resources, and urgency. And as soon as it arrived it was gone.
You know how, in movies and TV shows, the feds are always wearing tiny, nearly-invisible earpieces to communicate with one another? A guy in a sweatsuit or a polo shirt, on a park bench or in a parked car can briefly touch his ear and be in communication with his whole network. The point is to be inconspicuous. Which is why it’s a little unusual that in the “Cross the Border” video, the agents looking for Mr. Man and Boo-Bonic are stalking around an airport in suits and ties, with headsets so big they look like Xbox Live. But this is Philly’s Most Wanted, and nothing is supposed to be subtle –– not the cadres of beautiful flight attendants with packs taped to their thighs, not the exultant celebrations down in Mexico that must have been filmed at a later date, not the inseparable pair of crooks in Phillies jerseys.
“Cross the Border” is an ideal version of the de rigueur rap single of the era: a song that organizes an act’s usual subject matter around an elevator-pitch concept (they’re running drugs across the border) and gives it a little non-American musical flair (the Spanish guitars that were kind of en vogue at the time). It’s mean and it’s funny; it opens with a four-bar intro from Boo-Bonic which culminates in “...and I ain’t tryna talk, I’m tryna fuck” as the drums drop in. It’s not the only absurd moment in the song –– there’s Boo teasing a vacation in “C-A-C-U-N,” there’s Mr. taking joy in a girl sincerely saying she’s only with him for his money, there’s the deliriously 2000 punchline “I got hoes with accents, and I don’t mean Hyundais / My hands touched more bricks that Kwame’s.”
But as mentioned, BET balked at the obviousness of the song and video’s drug plotting, which severely compromised the rollout. Yet the song was not utilitarian: it works superbly as a tonal break in the middle of the album, sandwiched between a skit where an annoyed girlfriend takes a phone call from jail and begrudgingly agrees to make a pickup (“from that dude I be hollering at”) and a song that opens with absolutely pornographic moaning and then Pharrell bragging about having a VCR in his car.
Get Down or Lay Down hinges on the idea that the guys are celebrities in Philly (there’s a song called [refers to notes] “Philly Celebrities”) and that they’re ruthless, unflappable supervillains, and yet it gets the little humorous beats of everyday conversation. For example: on the opening song, the Kelis-assisted “Radikal,” Boo-Bonic says that his haters “talk through the song so they bitch don't hear me.” Or: on “Suckas,” when Mr. Man quips about those who “Hate on you quick in front of chicks / You see 'em and they be like, ‘Man I ain't say that dumb shit!’”
Speaking of “Suckas,” the album excels because the Neptunes give PMW such A1 material –– even when they’re retracing their steps a little bit. “Suckas” shares too many elements with “Superthug” to seem like a truly original step for the duo, but it’s slinking, irresistible. That song also has an absolutely iconic single cover.
As vocalists, the pair are well-suited for one another: close but not too close, counterpoints that clearly exist in the same universe. (When Boo-Bonic backs off the intensity a little bit, he sounds like Mase.) On “Y’all Can’t Never Hurt Us,” they trade off lines, bouncing the rap-as-crack metaphor to one another over and over in between nods to Lethal Weapon and E.T. On “The Game,” Boo-Bonic says “It’s me and Mr., it’s like A.C. and O.J.,” which is incorrect, because if either one of them were driving the Bronco you imagine they’d have made it to Mexico.
There are brief moments when the personality seems stifled; “Please Don’t Mind” is buttoned-up to the point of anonymity. And there are instances, like the rote, morose closer “This Bitch,” that suggest if Boo-Bonic and Mr. Man were left to their own devices, the album might be full of humorless crime pulp. They’re at their best when they’re unhinged and, mercifully, Get Down or Lay Down is frequently unhinged –– how else would you describe Boo saying that he’s “snorted out my mind with six bitches, like Rick James / Wanna marry me and all they know is my nickname”? What about the “Piece of the Pie” skit, a profane game show complete with a jingle and a studio audience, or the “Pretty Tony” one, where PMW calls a pimp on the phone who’s having sex throughout the conversation, and makes the girl on his end moan Mr. Man’s name? What about when Boo brags about sitting so close at Sixers games that he could trip Toni Kukoc?
“Suckas Pt. 2” brings in Beans, which is notable not only for the historical what-ifs, but for the chemistry the trio displays. (On the hypothetical front: there’s a line in the “What Makes Me” hook about heading to Atlanta to lay low after a shooting, which is impossible to hear without thinking of Jay’s “Locked in the slammer? Nope –– popped up in Atlanta” from “Reservoir Dogs,” which broke Beans to a national audience.) The superior collab on the album, though, is “Street Tax,” where the PMW guys trade verses with Pusha-T and Malice, from the Clipse. Each of the four rappers is at or near his best, from Boo-Bonic (“I oversee the projects like A&Rs”) to Malice (who’s “in Egypt with eight wives”), Mr. Man (who consoles someone who’s hear a rumor that Mr.’s about to run in his house) to Pusha (“What you know about hiding your bricks in Folgers? / With grandmothers and aunts as primary holders?”). For a moment, the duos are indistinguishable.
The career paths they took, of course, were completely divergent. The Clipse became borderline stars with their debut and bona fide ones as they scythed their way though the mixtape world. Even when the brothers separated because one of them found God, the other found Kanye. Philly’s Most Wanted was stuck, as if in quicksand; when the We Got It 4 Cheap tapes were being uploaded to DatPiff, PMW was disbanding. All that’s left are a handful of immutable songs and a bottomless well of imagined futures.