Album

What Went Right With… Sporty Thievz & Street Cinema?

A review of Street Cinema by Sporty Thievz illustrated by a countdown film reel over an image of Yonkers

Sporty Thievz, a Hip-Hop trio from Yonkers, New York, released their debut album in 1998 and it was an enjoyable listen. Members King Kirk, Big Dubez, and Marlon Brando attempted to create an album with a concept; that of a movie theatre with the tracks themselves acting like mini-films. With around 70% of the LP taking place in an exaggerated cinematic world – a place of drug deals, robberies, assassins, and federal agents – this album was basically an action-thriller in audio form. The title Street Cinema (at least for the most part) was apt given the core concept of the album, but since the film genres referenced here were all one-dimensional, the LP despite being original at times, every now and then veered into the realms of cliche.

The “Intro” of the album begins with the trio going to a cinema, and en-route they mention song titles as though they were films with the “Street Cinema” being an actual location. This opener however, sets out a pointless scenario with someone vomiting and people idly chatting, in fact the introduction is largely unneeded (or at the very least it could have been more focussed on setting the scene). Strangely, there’s mentions of “Hot Pursuit” which isn’t even a track on the album.

From that point on however, we have many entertaining songs including “The Spot” which spins a narrative about the goings-on in a drug spot over a 1970’s-sounding sample. There’s also “Fedz/Freeks Skit” which contains a narrative about the authorities closing in on some crooks who are trying to flee the state. “Fedz” also contains an interpolation of “Here Comes The Rain Again” by The Eurythmics making the song a very catchy joint with crossover potential.

Suddenly however, just as the listener begins to immerse themselves in a world of drug-deals and authorities, the Thievz abandon their narrative-based, cinema-focussed concept and with “Freeks/Slow Money Toney” they begin to venture into needless sexism. With a bit of tweaking, this could have been transformed into a plot, possibly about sex-obsessed or cheating partners, but regardless of there being amusing lines here and there (“you suck like The Knicks”) the overall topic and cheap organ sound just breaks up the cinematic feel of the LP.

This concept-interruption actually happens on numerous occasions in Street Cinema. We have a handful of film-like tracks such as “Spy Hunter” (which is like a less successful Mission Impossible with the trio trying to retrieve a neutron bomb), “Hitmen/Cheapskit” (telling the story of the life of a hit-man), and “Aquamen” (a plot about stealing the mob’s cocaine, the opening skit sounding like a potential scene in a Bad Boys sequel). But there are also a bunch of songs that don’t abide by the concept or title of the album. “Cheapskate”, “Mac Daddy”, “Ready” and “Propose A Toast” all miss the vividness and narrative construction of the other (better) songs, and for me, that’s too many concept-breaking tracks for this album to be considered a full-blown classic.

Don’t get me wrong, Street Cinema is a decent album but these issues can’t be ignored. With the cover artwork sporting a film countdown reel along with the title of the LP, you expect there to be back-to-back filmic variety but there isn’t. Aside from the aforementioned abandonment of the central idea of a “cinema”, there’s a distinct lack of variation when it comes to the plots and topics. When you’ve listened to the album as a whole and taken into consideration the concept of the piece, unfortunately, the overall tone is like a straight-to-video Steven Segal movie starring someone like Ja Rule, DMX or Cam’Ron.

From GZA to First Platoon, tales of drug-deals are nothing new in Hip-Hop music and the Thievz add nothing new that make their tracks stand out among the plethora of other drug-trafficking and drug-taking songs. The plots are very generic and very similar across the whole of the LP which is part of the reason this release falls short of being a bonafide classic.

All this criticism makes it sound like Street Cinema is a bad album, but on the contrary, this is actually a very enjoyable listen, something that after 20 years still sounds appealing. There’s decent storytelling and atmosphere-building in tracks such as “Aquamen”, “Spy Hunter”, and “Hitmen” with the latter song borrowing from the brilliant Luc Besson film Leon: The Professional (the “no women no children” motto evolves into “no kids and double for females”). There’s also a quick break from contrived topics with “Like Father, Like Son/C.E.O. Freestyle” which contains a plot about men following in their criminal father’s footsteps. There’s also “Angel” (a potential religious Sci-Fi flick) which spins a yarn about a guardian angel stopping people from committing crimes and other acts of violence they might later regret. “Angel” also sports a very memorable chorus with the title forming an extremely elongated key-changing line.

Speaking of plots, even though there’s a handful of non-film tracks, many of them are satisfying and replayable. “Raw Footage” does ditch the cinematic narrative but this is a great song which features Tragedy Khadafi fresh off his War Report contribution bringing his typical street-centric lyricsm. There’s also some creative rhyming in “Spy Hunter” with Big Dubez rhyming “weap-on (weapon)” with “slept on” and “Mon-a-co (Monaco)” with “charcoal” and “Gestapo”.

“Cheapskate” also abandons the core concept of the LP (and is also very radio friendly) but this is a fantastic track. It’s also the first in a long line of songs by the trio tackling the sexist concept of women flocking to men for their money and the unwritten code of exchanging sexual favours for material goods. There’s some comedic lines in this track such as; “Let it be known now when you see us three dudes. Call us; ‘I Don’t Gotta Kirk’, ‘No Marlon’ and the ‘Cheap Dubez’”

The entire album is produced by Ski (who worked on Camp Lo and Jay-Z’s debut albums) along with Sporty Thievz member King Kirk. Together they created a sound that, for the most part, is entertaining and which matches the topic of each track. As a group, the trio then add their own unique but complimentary raps over the production with Marlon Brando and King Kirk bringing a touch of comedy whereas Big Dubez brings a more slick vibe to his rhymes.

The standout tracks are “The Spot”, “Fedz”, “Spy Hunter”, “Raw Footage”, “Hitmen”, “Cheapskate”, “Angel”, “Aquamen” and “Street Cinema”. The less successful tracks are “Mac Daddy” and “Ready” with their jiggy production. These two songs both abandon the premise of the album title but in addition there’s some horribly bad singing at the close of “Mac Daddy” and some contrived Hip-Pop sounds in “Ready” (which features Peter Gunz and sounds like a missing song from his Make It Reign LP). There’s also average tracks like “Propose A Toast” which is a typical, late-90s Blues-Hip-Hop track dedicated to people who are deceased but which also contains a slightly corny chorus (the R’N’B portion).

Following on from “Cheapskate”, the idea that men should pay for everything (from the first date all the way to a steady relationship) was made popular during the 1990’s by groups such as Destiny’s Child and TLC (among others) and Sporty Thievz took issue with all of them, issuing direct rebuttals to a couple of their songs. The album Street Cinema was largely ignored when it was released but a year or so later, the group garnered some recognition and fame when they made a satirical rap track “No Pigeons” which was a reply to TLC’s “No Scrubs” (the music video even humorously referenced the TLC video). This hilarious song was the trio’s biggest hit (it was certified gold) and it was therefore tacked-on to all re-pressings of the album.

Here’s the original TLC version:

And here’s Sporty Thievz’ response:

The original version of Street Cinema is still the Spotify version below but many physical copies have the group’s biggest song “No Pigeons” annexed at the end as a bonus track which further eroded the central concept of the album.

With the success of “No Pigeons” however, Sporty Thievz during the period after the release of their debut, then began making back-to-back tracks which followed on from and added to this topic. “Cheapskate Remix (Even Cheaper)” even alludes to their breakout hit; “KFC is good, but girls can’t be chickens, Man listen, but what they can be is pigeons. Pigeons, the worst bird, that’s my word, Eating on curbs in herds looking for herb”…

This tackling of relationship sexism was possibly done the best in “No Bills Bills Bills” aka “Why Why Why” (a rebuttal to Destiny’s Child’s song “Bills, Bills, Bills”) the topic of which sounded archaic even when it was released.

Here’s Destiny’s Child song with a terribly sexist chorus:

And here’s Sporty Thievz response which includes an interpolation of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” (there’s no official video for this track):

Here’s the opening verse which says it all…

“Why you can’t buy me a drink? Buy me a mink, pay for my link. Pay for my rent, pay for my cab, At least go half, throw me some cash. Throw me some ass. Fill my belly, with shrimp and spaghetti, Take me to the tele, let me use your celly. Take me to the movies, take me to Bloomy’s. Buy me jewellery, buy me some Gucci/Coogi. Buy me a coupe, feed me some fruit, Buy me some suits, buy me some boots. Pay for my cut, fuck when I wanna fuck, Lick me up, why don’t you come pick me up? Why don’t you meet me here, and meet me there? Pay my fair, pay for my beer. Pay my phones, pay for my loans, make me moan, take me home.”

“Cheapskate”, “No Pigeons”, “Why Why Why”, and “Independent Man”, all tackled anti-male sexism (which isn’t as bad as it sounds) with Sporty Thievz almost becoming a one-topic group by the early 2000’s. See-sawing between misogynistic and anti-sexist, their rebuttal gimmick made it seem that the Theivz were concerned with one thing: dissing R’N’B songs. Either that or being overly concerned with the plight of the male (which, ignoring the accepted sexist “date dynamic” was not a good look once it became a repeating theme).

After their 1998 album, it was reported that Sporty Thievz released three or possibly four more albums; Show Me Some La in 2000, a self-titled album in the same year, In Stores Now! aka Fuck Sporty Thievz in 2001, not to mention an alleged follow-up to their debut album titled Street Cinema Part 2 (possibly only a single) none of which I can find whether it’s physical or digital copies. Street Cinema was one of the last LPs released on Ruffhouse Records which closed in the 1990’s and then reopened in the 2010’s. With the parent company Columbia Records (I assume) holding the rights to Show Me Some La, it would be great to see these other offerings from the group officially released (at the very least to stream).

Back to the album, Street Cinema is obviously an above-average LP. In fact, up to the tenth track, it’s a very solid album. There’s way too many unneeded skits (including the intro) in an attempt to set the scene pre-song, but had these tracks and the weaker songs like “Mac Daddy” and “Ready” been reworked or removed, this could have easily been a 9/10. If you ignore the few shortcomings the album has, Street Cinema is a very listenable and satisfying LP. Given that Thievz member Marlon Brando heroically died whilst allegedly pushing a child away from a swerving vehicle, the life and sounds of the group is now unfortunately a drama with a disheartening end.

Street Cinema is somewhat underrated but the bigger problem is the group itself being overlooked and almost forgotten by fans and the media alike. Other less enjoyable albums from the same period are still spoken of today but Sporty Thievz’ contribution to Hip-Hop is lost somewhere in the past like a Blockbuster rental tape. With the trio giving us a memorable album, not to mention a handful of satirical, comedic songs, I think it’s time for the Sporty Thievz to be revisited and gain a bigger audience.

Get Your Tickets.

Beats: 7/10

Rhymes: 8/10

Overall: 8/10

Currently, King Kirk is offering a free download of a cut-down version of Street Cinema on his Bandcamp page. Get it while you can…

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2 replies »

  1. “Bills , Bills , Bills” had a disgusting and materialistic message . When I think about it Destiny’s Child was and Beyonce is constantly pushing cliched , formulaic and hollow sentiments . Fake femimism . The glorification of money .

    M.B. (Rest In Paradise) is an unsung hero of hip hop . The mainstream media totally ignored his heroism and his death . Around this time (1998 to 2003) the media also ignored the deaths of Big L , Big Pun , Half a Mill , DJ Screw , Freaky Tah , Camouflage , Bugz , Fat Pat , DJ Uncle Al , Jam Master Jay and Soulja Slim (Rest In Paradise to all of them) .

  2. * I know Camoflauge was involved with selling drugs to minors and the circumstances related to his death were related to drug dealing in specific .

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