AUTHOR’S NOTE: This piece could not have been written without Eric “Baby Hulk” Holford, former drum tech for the Hard Corps, who took time out of his life to answer questions about a twenty-year-old album.
The Perfect Chord looks back at albums you may have missed when they dropped, or miss now that they’ve faded from memory. This week’s glimpse into the crates:
The Hard Corps – Def Before Dishonor
In 1991, just as Hip Hop began to conquer the popular music world, labels quick to jump on the trend had been signing just about any group falling within any permutation of the genre. One such heretofore underexplored subgenre, rap-rock, flitted along the outskirts of mainstream success largely due to explorations by rock bands like The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Faith No More, Anthrax, and Biohazard (to say nothing of early Def Jam artists Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys–the latter, in fact, having begun their career as a hardcore punk rock band). With the explosion of rap-inflected nü-metal years away, major labels cast a wide net; even 24-7-Spyz and the Urban Dance Squad garnered enough attention to land major deals.
While Spyz and UDS had at least enough success on other levels to at least garner a history, other bands disappeared as quickly as they popped up. One such band—Nashville-based six-piece The Hard Corps, snagged a contract with Interscope in the early 1990s largely due to their association with Run DMC’s Jam Master Jay; their subsequent (and only) album, 1991’s Def Before Dishonor, featured Jay’s unmistakable production work on eight of its thirteen tracks. The band had built up an aggressive following in the south, largely in Nashville and Atlanta, where they’d played many shows with Follow For Now; tours with Spyz, FFN, and Body Count followed.
Def Before Dishonor catches the attention before the listener presses ‘Play;’ the album cover is a surprisingly effective photo of the band—three white musicians, three black, standing together, each with a hungry look in his eyes, like a pack of wolves. The overall effect is less menacing and more suggestive of the energy lurking behind the cover.
Fortunately, the album doesn’t disappoint. Hyperactive opener “Hard Corps” is a frantic party jam highlighted by call-and-response verses from frontmen Ronzo “The Beast” Cartwright and Bobby “Dirty Bob” Samuels. The song also displays the backing band as more than basic sidemen—drummer Kenny “The Maestro” Owens and bassist Machine Gun Kelly lay down a tight groove, interpolating the theme to Mission: Impossible, while guitarist Rev Kev’s leads trade lines effortlessly with DJ Terry “Major Kut” Hayes’ scratches.
In fact, the band’s tightness is what makes Def Before Dishonor stand out. Rather than sound like a gratuitous, convenient mash-up of hip hop clichés laid clumsily over hard rock instrumentation (as much of the bands to fuse rap with rock would later sound), the Hard Corps legitimately sounds like a group; the instrument-players know exactly how to occupy space with the DJ, and the two rappers wisely know when to share the spotlight. “Can Can’t” follows “Hard Corps,” with Beast and Dirty Bob’s shouts accentuated by Kev’s guitar squalls. Rather than allow the album to quickly settle into a routine of “shouted raps over hard rock,” the band wisely slaps acoustic guitar-driven anti-drug ballad “3 Blind Mice” in the album’s first third. “Let’s Go” and “Oh Yeah” follow, midtempo numbers (the latter featuring an excellent Kev guitar solo) heavily featuring Major Kut’s turntable work, before the band slips into a heavier, slower style for “The Dirster.” The song (produced by Jay) features a more raw, less-compressed drum sound that adds a favorable dynamic to the hard-hitting Maestro’s beats. ”Dirtster,” in fact, is one of the album’s highlights, featuring the band as effortlessly entertaining as they must have been live. Every element of the band’s sound is perfectly on display—the drums, Kelly’s funky bass groove, Kev’s flanged guitar, Kut’s panned scratches, and Beast and Bob’s head-nodding flow.
The band gradually picks up the pace over the remaining half of the album, particularly during a surprisingly-inspired cover of AC/DC’s “Back In Black.” The cover is probably the only production misstep (Maestro’s drums are placed too far back in the mix, and vocals too far in the front), but the performances are very entertaining, and the song itself serves as a great segue into “Bring Down The House,” another party jam buttressed by Kev’s guitars. The band slips back into “message” mode for “Crime Don’t Pay” before ending the album with two unexpectedly funky tracks: “What Time Is It?” and the anti-gang “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” both of which feature looser, funkier Kelly bass lines than usual. The latter song is another highlight, ending the album on a surprisingly-slow, yet pleasant note.
What’s truly unfortunate is that Def Before Dishonor–a fantastic debut by a band that clearly sounds ready to take the world by storm—ended up being the Hard Corps’ only release. The band toured endlessly following its release, until 1993 when—amidst a tour with Body Count, they were abruptly dropped by Interscope. They subsequently returned to Nashville and, after a line-up and name change, eventually called it quits. The Beast would continue to play in Nashville bands before landing a job working IT for the Nashville Predators NHL team; Kelly and Kev ventured into designing musical equipment (the former for Gibson guitars, and the latter for a soundboard company in Nashville). The remaining members of the band are more-or-less out of music; Dirty Bob picked up a doctorate in Engineering and is now a minister, while Maestro and Major Kut have settled into the corporate world. What’s worse—other than a few videos on youtube, The Hard Corps seems to have completely fallen off the map, leaving only their extremely out-of-print debut as the sole testament to how promising they were. Time will tell if the band ever gets the credit they deserve for being as pioneering as they were in the realms of rap and rock—hopefully, they will.
A. Darryl Moton is a freelance writer/Iowan/curmudgeon attempting to escape Portland, Oregon.