When it comes to lyrical innovations in the earliest evolutions of Hip Hop, with the exception of Mele Mel, there’s hardly any other name mentioned more than the Treacherous Three. Most often the bulk of those accolades are bestowed upon the great Kool Moe Dee which is understandable, but he wasn’t the only MC pioneer in the group. Each MC served a function and played their position well. Besides lyrical innovations, they also have one of the most impressive discographies of that era, with a string of quality records comparable only to very few (I would say primarily Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five and Kurtis Blow…).
Despite the wealth of great records by the Treacherous Three, those songs were not always fully effective at showing the full range of their individual lyrical talent, something that was accented by listening to a couple hours of live performance audio of the group. The records were better at showcasing their skills of working together as a unit, rhyming in unison and then transitioning into quick trade-offs seamlessly. They were also great with writing strong concepts and generally had some of the best song intros in Rap at the time.
Like the average Rap Listener I was most mystified by Kool Moe Dee, mainly from his now legendary verbal assault on Busy Bee, so when listening to the records my ears naturally perked up particularly on his parts. It wasn’t until later that I took greater notice of the under-appreciated skills of Special K. My intrigue with his talents was first peaked in their official last song, “Gotta Rock” in 1985. I feel that “Gotta Rock” officially focused on some techniques the Treacherous Three had pioneered and toyed with since at least 1980, but this song served as the official kicking down the door to what a new breed of great MCs (EX: Ultramagnetic MCs, Rakim, LL Cool J, KRS One, MC Tee, Just-Ice, King Tee, Juice Crew, Flavor Unit, etc…) would use as a great influence and inspiration; metaphors, multi-syllablic rhyming, offbeat/onbeat styles, exquisite vocabulary, Abstract Rhyming, etc...
Hailing from the Bronx, Special K was a bit of an odd man out in the crew of Harlemites. Furthermore, he was often truly in his own zone for his solo parts on Treacherous Three songs. While doing research for this article with a heightened critical ear I noticed some other moments of genius in Special K’s history that had previously snuck by me, such as his slightly different flow technique and pioneering of multi-syllable rhyming on “New Rap Language” and his unique writing on “Get Up”, “Feel The Heartbeat”, “Yes We Can” and others.
“New Rap Language” was the Treacherous Three debut recording, featuring short-time original group member Spoonie Gee*. Its purpose was to capitalize on the popularity of what was perhaps Kool Moe Dee’s finest innovation at that time, the “Fast Rap” style. It’s clear that Kool Moe Dee is the spotlight on the song. In fact, during the song both Spoonie Gee and Special K sing praise for Moe Dee’s gift of gab and proclaim him the master of the style in one fashion or another. Special K is even asked to “do the same” as Moe Dee, but “make yours shorter”. Regardless, each MC holds their own verbal weight. Yet, even a closer examination reveals a clear distinction from the other three MCs in Special K’s approach. While most of the song focuses on the sheer speed, sometimes combined with different techniques enhanced by flair in their delivery, Special K has a few moments (noted below) were he exercises the most effective use of densely packed pure lyricism and is also pushing the envelope with his use of Multi-Syllablic Rhymes** It is fairly basic usage, but it’s among the earliest of the technique being used on a Rap record. Also, while the other three MCs are speed-rapping with a normal conversational approach or using word repetition to increase the syllables, Special K takes a more abstract, shorthand approach. At times, he’s just shooting out rapid-fire descriptive words or ideas, leaving you to fill in the blanks. It’s essentially a style that his brother, T La Rock, would categorize a few years later as, “Adjective Expert”.
Here are some of the key moments by Special K, noted with their time-points in the song:
“Undefeated/never beat it/never cheated, but succeeded/If I need It/You believe it/Rhymes on, guaranteed/Wheeling, Dealing/women-stealing, Casanova, Booty-Feeling/Understanding, reprimanding/ Rocking on, that’s demanding” (at 1:20) [Note the Root Word Multi’s using phonetics and the root “It” with Beat, Need, Believe]
“Ego sharing/Always caring/Man that rhymes with all the daring/Satisfaction guaranteed, giving you just what you need/I’m special K with all the planning, known to be the most outstanding/When I look into the mirror, knowing there’s no one sincerer” (at 2:33) [This is just unadulterated great MCing. The high-speed articulation is quite impressive.]
“Yes, for real we are the deal/And on the mic we use a skill/The latest, greatest, no one hate us/take us home and gold plate us/Rapping roaring, never boring/Always keep you on the floor ‘n/Rock and rolling/Take control ’n/Rocking till we’re grey and old” (at 4:37) [This is his most advanced used of Compound Multi’s with the “hate us” & “plate us” rhyming with “latest” and “greatest”. Also, he adds the extra syllable of the “N” after “Floor” for it rhyme with “boring” and “roaring”. Then uses that trick again with the extra “N” after “Control” for it to rhyme with “rolling”]
On “The Body Rock” in 1980, Special K has a shining moment on his solo verse towards the end (at 5:11). Kool Moe Dee is directly before him with a triple-word style. Meanwhile, Special K’s verse better illustrates the legacy that Treacherous Three became known for, “They say I’m not in the place by accident/Because I’ve been sent to represent/The Magnificent, intelligent, that’s why I’m on the mic with this statement/That the party’s content is excitement/Feel confident, I’m a resident/And I’m a president of this establishment/And in this department got a document/For every red cent that you spent/To help pay the rent for this announcement!” His cadence is very choppy, going against the grain of the more accepted smooth flow style of that time. I can’t think of another verse from someone in that era that sounds that way. However, it is obviously not because he is lacking in that area, at times [Note: part BOLDED above] he kicks the flow in full gear and rolls with a slightly offbeat, nearly Roll Of The Tongue, style that could be a inspiration to KRS One’s style on “Poetry”***
Perhaps the groups biggest hit, “Feel The Heartbeat” showcases Special K’s elegance and personalized cadence, “I’m Special K, not a doctor, but I’m going to prescribe/Gonna rock, send a vibe, rock your whole tribe/A traditional custom when I’m in the place/Something that you enjoy, no matter what’s your race/I’m like a reoccurring myth(?), but all I am is a man/Like a well known brand always end demand/So let’s rock…ha, ha, as you feel the beat/As I rap to the rhythm and sound of heartbeat!”/” This method builds on the shorthand style he used in “The New Rap Language” and it’s a primary source to what makes his rhythm so unique. Additionally, he also revisits his style of using lots of open space and then suddenly increasing the speed at will at key point.
I consider Special K a critical pioneer for both major types of “Abstract Rhyming”****. I break it up into “Abstract Delivery” and “Abstract Thought” (though MCs often tend to use both). The obvious one is his different cadence that I have referenced a few times which falls under the “Abstract Delivery” banner, but also I credit him for pioneering the style of “Abstract Thought”, which refers to saying things in a way not restricted to the norm and/or speaking in coded language. He toys with that style here with lines like, “I’m like a reoccurring myth” and “A traditional custom when I’m in the place”…who else was saying things like this during this time period??!! It was NOT some nonsense babble. He rather preferred to take the uncharted way to say something that would have been generally simplified. I’m guessing a “reoccurring myth” is something comparable to a “living legend” and a “traditional custom” was eluding to him being “respected and welcomed by the people” or something to that effect. You will also notice that Special K is the MC in the group most proficient with use of extensive vocabulary in the solo verses. Not only on “Feel The Heartbeat, but also on “Body Rock”.
In Part Two we'll take close look at "Yes We Can", "Get Up" & "Action"!! Part Three will examine "Gotta Rock", his brief solo career, the Treacherous Three reunion album, a couple random appearances, and a nice live show freestyle from '85!
*Whether or not Spoonie Gee was ever an official member of Treacherous Three has been known to elicit different answers. Both Kool Moe Dee and L.A. Sunshine have said he was a founding member who left to go solo and so they replaced him with Special K, but the group’s DJ, Easy Lee, also the DJ for Spoonie Gee, has said that he was never an official member just an affiliate. I’ve seen others debate the fact as well…
**Special K isn’t the only MC using Multi-Syllables on the song. He is just using them the most creatively and more often. There is also Moe Dee’s, “Well I can shock you and amaze ya/Then I Hit ya, then I daze ya/Either way I’m gonna phase ya/and I’ll never ever praise ya” and also his semi-multi, “well if you rather have her”. L.A. Sunshine also uses the Root-Word Multi, “Do it, To It, Right On Thru It”).
***I have a few theories on the KRS “Poetry” offbeat/onbeat style. The Special K theory is something I just noted today. I originally thought the style may have been inspired by Kangol Kid of U.T.F.O. In fact, I have one, of many, theories that suggests that the MC Style-Masters torch passed from Kool Moe Dee to Kangol Kid to KRS One…always with the K’s it seems…
****Abstract MCing: I separate Abstract MCing in two primary categories, although they often overlap. One is Abstract Delivery, which refers primarily to style and cadence (Think: Busta Rhymes, O.D.B, Thirstin Howl III, Masta Killa, Das Efx, Cypress Hill, and various others who adopt the technique for certain songs/verses) and then there’s “Abstract Thought” which I described above (Think: De La Soul, Divine Styler, Dinco D, Digable Planets, Pete Nice, Vordul Of Cannibal OX, Aesop Rock). A few people had hints of this in their music since some of the earliest Rap Records because they were probably just bugged out people (IE Count Coolout, Maximus Three, K Rob, etc…), but people who really fleshed it out were guys like Rammellzee, Special K and later T La Rock (one can guess the T La Rock had been doing it for years, but just didn't have a record out yet) and MC Tee of Mantronix. Rammellzee was just a bugged out dude and it seems that he generally rhymed strictly off the head so it was always stream of consciousness. However, on a track like “Beat Bop” he focused on the use of Abstract Delivery too with his “Gangsta Duck” style and so forth. Of course, the most obvious are Ced Gee and Kool Keith of Ultramagnetic MCs. Keith in particular utilized both Abstract Delivery and Abstract Thought and he has repeatedly cited Special K as a primary influence to rhyme. Other MCs who use both types of Abstract MCing extensively would be Greg Nice, Saafir, Zev Love X/MF Doom, Freestyle Fellowship, Organized Konfusion, Labtekwon, Redman, Sir Menelik, Son Of Bazerk, Masai Bey, and many others...OTHER MICROPHONE MATHEMATIC FEATURES INCLUDE: T La Rock, Mele Mel, and Slug of Atmosphere! Read them HERE!!Written By Kevin Beacham, post 20 recent hours of Treacherous Three studying, on top of the 32 years of collective listening...