Play With Toys
Record label: Imago
Release date: 1992
Basehead remains a lost chapter in Black music. Brainchild of Michael Ivey, the band was too leftfield to be considered hip-hop, but contained its spirit of shooting from the hip. Shortly after the success of De La Soul’s debut album 3 Feet High & Rising, a number of off-kilter rap acts started popping up, and Basehead found themselves lumped in with the lot of them. But there was more happening on Ivey’s debut than hip-hop could contain, and if you didn’t listen closely, you’d miss a lot of it.
Play With Toys was first released on Emigre in 1991, then picked up by Imago for wider release the following year. This album opened up a range of possibilities for telling the same old stories with a new twist within Black music. Taking 40-ounce soaked stances on soul, funk and R&B (with hip-hop as its spirit guide), Ivey and friends created a funny, sardonic, and self-deprecating look at Black life from the bottom of a beer can. The Blackness would get deeper on the follow-up album Not In Kansas Anymore, speaking on topics like police brutality, racism, and black-on-black crime. All of that would grow from the musical foundation that Ivey established on Play With Toys.
The skits that bookend the album are hilarious, centering on a country and western band called Jethro and the Graham Crackers. The album even opens with a funky hillbilly cover version of James Brown’s “Sex Machine.” From there, it’s a laidback journey accented with a Southern drawl. Each song flows effortlessly into the next, characterized by sampled breaks, lazy guitar twangs, mumbled vocals, and an assortment of character voices. Ivey sings about burnt out brain cells on “2000 BC” and celebrates a breakup on “Brand New Day,” only to deny hurt feelings on the next song (“Not Over You”). Tales of hard times (“Better Days”) and escapism (“Ode To My Favorite Beer”) soon follow. “Hair” deals with an unfaithful girlfriend, and musically recalls some of Prince’s earlier, naughtier material. Remember when I said that you could miss a lot if you don’t listen closely? That’s the great thing about Basehead: they make you care enough to listen closely. Between the sleepy vocal delivery, layered voices and audio stock footage, expect to always hear something new the first few times you hear it. To tell you exactly what to listen for would be to spoil the surprises.
During their lifespan, Basehead was a favorite on the college circuit. It’s easy to see why – the humor, the sarcasm, the way Michael Ivey walks a line between the innocent and the jaded. Play With Toys remains a prized gem of an album, a slice of life in which many can see themselves doing and saying the same things. Few musicians in their career have so poignantly talked about the absurdities of being Black in America quite like Michael Ivey has. Basehead’s entire album collection should be sought out and examined with great curiosity and care.