Nothing about Whodini is typical in the world of rap music. From their name, (which member Jalil says is a play on “Whodunit” due to their initial desire to keep their identities secret), to their style of dress, their subject matter and even their recording home – Jive/Zomba Records.
“Whodini came to America as an import," lead writer Jalil explained to JayQuan in a 2005 interview. “Our recording home Jive/Zomba was based in Europe, and that’s where we recorded. They had SSL boards (Solid State Logic mixing consoles) long before the states. That’s the reason why it sounds so good when people sample “Friends." Not only were we being produced by Thomas Dolby and working with Connie Plank (who engineered Devo and Kraftwerk) and The Thompson Twins, we set off the Black market for Jive in the states, before Billy Ocean or any of those artists. Nobody heard of Jive Records in the states before Whodini."
Many people, even big fans of Whodini assume that 1984’s Escape is their debut full length album, but 1983’s Whodini was the groups debut. “Magic’s Wand," an ode to their mentor - rap radio legend the late Mr. Magic, “Rap Machine” and “The Haunted House of Rock” were hits for the group in the states, and abroad; but the sound that would become their signature hadn’t yet developed. Mr. Magic introduced Jalil to mogul, promoter and manager Russell Simmons, and Simmons introduced him to Larry Smith in the legendary Disco Fever night club, and that meeting would eventually give birth to the Whodini sound. Piano’s, Jazz Fender Basses, Mini Moog’s and an array of other instruments that not many, if any rap recording artists were utilizing to great effect in 1984 comprised the Whodini sound.
Jalil says that multi-instrumentalist and producer Larry Smith wasn’t initially impressed with Whodini’s output up until the time of their initial meeting. An accident where one of Larry’s guitar players “Sliced off a couple of fingers” servicing an automobile put Larry into a position where he needed funds, so he invited Jalil over to check out some music. “5 Minutes of Funk” was one of the first songs that Jalil heard in this batch of music (Ja says that "5 Minutes of Funk" originally contained a Rock guitar bassline). Jalil also had a beat in his head that he had been beating on his mattress trying to bring to some sort of fruition. When Larry heard Jalil’s initial idea, he replied “That’s would take three different kick drums," to which Jalil replied “Thats what i'm hearing.” That beat would become “Friends," and along with “5 Minutes of Funk” would be the lead single from Escape.
Before 1983 it was impossible to find two songs on a 12” single. The standard format was the vocal version on side 1 and the instrumental of that same song on the flip side. Singles such as "Throwdown"/"School Beats" by The Disco 4 and “It’s Like That/”Sucker MC’s” by Run-D.M.C. became popular, because for $3.99 you could get 2 songs with instrumentals of both on one record. “Friends”/”5 Minutes of Funk” is amongst the most iconic of these 12” singles. Both songs received heavy daytime rotation on Urban Radio, which was extremely rare at the time. As well both songs charted on popular urban music charts such as Jet magazine’s Top 20 simultaneously, a nearly impossible feat for a rap act in 1984.
“Friends” was without a doubt the most mature rap song at the time, handling subject matter that rap fans could relate to, over a music bed that the parents of those fans (who weren’t very accepting of rap music in many cases) could enjoy as well. “5 Minutes of Funk” with its driving baseline and perhaps Whodini’s greatest lyrical display was an instant winner. “Sit back, relax put on ya head gear, get ready for a trip through the atmosphere/gonna take you for a ride through the Twilight Zone, don’t need a spaceship, I use my microphone” Jalil smoothly proclaims. It’s nearly impossible to pick a favorite between the two songs, and this was a prefect set up for the album which would cement Whodini as one of the most versatile and sophisticated rap acts ever.
Escape was released on October 17th, 1984 and it more than lived up to the hype created by the first single. According to Robbie Ettelson of Cuepoint , it was recorded in London over the space of two weeks. The album cover portrayed Ecstacy and Jalil behind a set of bars, a perfect backdrop given the albums title.
"Big Mouth" was a cautionary tale for those who spread rumors, and don't know when to shut up. "I used to get angry and all uptight, but you can say what you want, just spell my name right," Ecstasy raps. Musically "Big Mouth" is one of the few times that Larry Smith produced a nearly all drum machine track for Whodini. One of the genius elements of Larry's production was that he crafted very melodic pieces for Whodini, while supplying Run-D.M.C. with mostly beats. Music critic Tom Terrell says that "Larry envisioned Whodini as the Cadillac Seville to Run-D.M.C's Electra 225 hooptie."
Some songs cannot be separated from their video. It is impossible to hear Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and not think about the video, so it is with "The Freaks Come Out At Night." Recorded live at performances from the legendary "Fresh Festival" tour, the video contains tour bus and backstage scenes and captures the unity of Whodini, U.T.F.O, The Fat Boys and other groups who were part of the iconic tour. There are even backstage scenes of a young Jermaine Dupri, who danced on the Fresh Fest tour and produced Whodini's 1996 album Six more than a decade later. Sonically "The Freaks Come Out At Night" was unlike anything that had been heard until that point in rap music. The synthesizer heavy track with its vocoder hook could easily have been the backing track to a song by an R&B band like Midnight Star or The Bar Kays; a testament to Larry Smith's range (he'd produced tracks for 70s/80s band Con Funk Shun).
The album's title track, "Escape (I Need a Break)" is a perfect example of the maturity of Whodini's subject matter. The song speaks from the point of view of a man fed up with the everyday nine to five rat race. "And when I ask for a raise, they tell me be patient, I've been working three years without a damn vacation, things could be better but they're gettin' worse until I got this job I never used to curse, well I've had it up to here with people treating me wrong - somebody tell the DJ to play my song!" The parents of Whodini fans could likely relate to those lyrics more so than Whodini's actual fanbase. Musically "Escape" was another synthesizer heavy track that was incredibly advanced for Hip Hop.
The instrumental DJ/cut track became a standard on rap albums right around the time of the release of Escape. By the title, one would think that "Featuring Grandmaster Dee" was such a cut, but it is oddly just an instrumental version of "5 Minutes of Funk." "We Are Whodini" and "Out of Control" are largely instrumental tracks that show off Larry Smith's superior musicianship. "We Are Whodini" has some rhyming by Jalil and Ex, sprinkled throughout the track, and a chanted vocoder hook that gives the song a futuristic feel. "Out Of Control" is a synthesizer and piano heavy track, which sampled vocals from "Haunted House of Rock" from Whodini's debut album.
Escape cemented Whodini as a group that carved their own impenetrable lane. There is no one to compare Whodini to, and the magical union of Whodini and Larry Smith will forever serve as one of Hip Hop's greatest musical moments.