The Experienced Listener Presents: Diary of an American Witchdoctor, by EJ tha Witchdoctor
I bring to you this critique by first invoking the voice of experience— you will not fully appreciate Diary of an American Witchdoctor until you do the following: 1) purchase and listen to Witchdoctor’s 1998 Dirty South classic, a S.W.A.T. Healin’ Ritual (I am declaring this MANDATORY; you will not regret this purchase!!); 2) listen to the following Witchdoctor albums: 9th Wonder of the World (2000); Gumbo Cookin (2003); King of the Beasts (2005); The God Iz Good Movement (2006). Why? Because Diary of an American Witchdoctoris like a greatest hits album, taking tracks from each of these four projects and rolling them up into one kast-iron black kettle of Southern cookin’.
When hip-hop heads think ‘underground’, they think about East Coast rappers in a dark tunnel with a swinging microphone, battling each other and hating on mainstream rappers in order to start a beef and make names for themselves. But the South has its underground, too. It’s a very different underground. Everybody knows that the Dungeon Family is the most underappreciated hip-hop conglomerate in history; Witchdoctor… well, he’s kinda like the dungeon under the Dungeon. The one where the restless souls of the dead prisoners dwell.
And, in fact, what little knowledge you may have of this album probably came by way of the brief stint of commercials on [adult swim] advertising it. On a Soul Train-reminiscent set complete with dancers, funkadelic letter fonts, and Afro-puffs, Witchdoctor could be seen pushing Diary of an American Witchdoctor. Being signed to Willams Street Records and affiliated with the [adult swim] counterculture of stoners and cosplayers… I’m sorry, you really don’t get much more underground than that.
Now, with all this underground and Dungeon talk, the first thing you’ve got to understand about Diary of an American Witchdoctor is that…Organized Noize Productions did not produce it. At least, not the whole thing; there are a variety of production involvements responsible here. You will hear this. The beats, while not bad at all, are not mixed to the standard of those on a S.W.A.T. Healin’ Ritual. The vocals also vary in quality from track to track. This album really shows you the difference between Witchdoctor, the independent artist, and Witchdoctor with O.N.P. in tow. The rapper remains unchanged; the sound quality suffers.
Witchdoctor begins this album with eerily joyful harmony on the track God iz Good. To be quite honest, if you’re spiritually sensitive, it’s a somewhat frightening track— the kind of track that makes you feel like you’re being drawn into something you’re not meant to be a part of. There’s a strange, detuned effect going on, where you’re not quite sure if his singing is off, or if the guitar out of tune (or is that a banjo?). It’s a sound that can cause a “he can’t sing/he can SANG” debate between any two listeners. Nevertheless, you feel a power in his overall delivery that makes such discussions irrelevant. To sum up the uneasiness of the track, where else have you heard a holy man say that God is “damn sho good” to him?
…Well, ‘holy’ may be a strong word. Because, as you listen further along this album, what you get is a blend of sacred and secular. Perhaps a better word would be ‘humble’. On the second track, Just Like You, Witchdoctor reveals that he’s no celebrity just because he makes music:
I’m like you; I’m real too/
Stressed too; I’m late paying bills too/
Over a beat that puts one in mind of the bumpers you hear on [adult swim], Witch brings his signature smooth vocals to the track. The irony of this track is the featured MC: when it comes to being ordinary, his verse pretty much defines it. The MC gives a very… corporate American delivery, to say the least. But, before one hates on the MC, one might consider that this is perhaps the whole point of the song— to join the hands of a musical talent with an average Joe who just happens to make words rhyme, in order to show that they have in common the daily struggles of the common man. Get it?
With its gruff kick drum and metallic hi-hats, Suicide Bomber is a highlight on the album. When Witchdoctor says, “I got word that you wanted to see me… Quickly!”, it’s enough to excite anyone in possession of a S.W.A.T. Healin’ Ritual, where he first uses the catchphrase. Originally, I thought the song was called Category 5. And the title would’ve been appropriate because the song feels like a hurricane slowly gaining strength; not to mention that EJ has, in times prior, referred to himself as “Hurricane Erin”. But the hook is so cleverly worded that the title it maintains becomes preferable:
No body guards or body armor, cuz I sound like a suicide bomber/
No bodyguards or body armor, keep angels close, you’re surrounded by your karma/
Ill Nation, the featured act on this track, truly brings something to the table. Their passionate deliveries don’t overshadow Witchdoctor, but complement him with intensity and devotion to the spiritual cause embedded in the song. It all amounts to a solid collaboration.
…Now, I’m not a fan of b-words or h-words. But I’d be lying if I said the track Spell on Dem Hoes wasn’t smoove as 1:06AM ridin’ I-20 Eastbound. With a little more live instrumentation, the beat could almost have passed for an O.N.P. original. And from the time Witch breathes on the track, the effect is overall quite sensual. It reminds me of the time I showed a picture of the Dungeon Family— from inside the booklet of the Even in Darkness album— to a very special young lady*. Touching the picture lightly, she froze and said, “Oo… who is this one with his shirt off?” I learned something that day: ladies love a cocoa brotha. And never try to put a female up on the Dungeon Family using visual aids; they get distracted…
Of course, the streets are all over this album. From The Barrel, where Witch tells us that he’s been on both the right and wrong side of a firearm— is there such a thing as the right side of a firearm?— to Semiautomatic, where he spits fire to mere mortals who dare step outta line, there’s no denying the hardcore element. But, before slumping into ‘concrete’ mode, Khujo Goodie makes an appearance on the track Part of Your Brain, as the Dungeon Kings, along with Mr. Ku, remind us that compartmentalization is necessary for survival.
…Big ole word. Sorry :-\
My uncle loves the song Good Day by the Nappy Roots. He says, “Now that’s what I’m talkin ‘bout; ‘gonna have a good day’! All this ‘bitch-this’ and ‘hoe-that’ and drugs and killing… why can’t Black folks just make a song about having a good day?” Well, I think my uncle would receive Witchdoctor’s Best Year in much the same way:
No more bounty hunters lookin for me/
Got a good woman in the kitchen cookin for me/
I smell spaghetti; when it’s ready you can whistle/
I see dust and cobwebs on my pistol/
See? That sounds like somebody having a good day, right Unc? Later in that same verse, EJ drops what, to a high school history teacher like myself, might be the dopest, most-needed bar in Black history:
…And a good rapper must first learn how to read/
Thank you, EJ. Thank you. God bless you in the name of Jesus Christ. Thank you.
One of my personal favorite cuts on the album is Are You Happy There?. Not because of the swing in the beat. Not because of the frantic, emphatic deliveries of Witchdoctor or featured wordsayer Mr. Tril. But because of the overall message, as the chorus repeats, “You live in the projects… are you happy there?/ You live in the ghetto… are you happy there?/” Too often in hip-hop, poverty and depravity are promoted as if they’re preferable situations. They’re not. As fellow Dungeon Family member Andre 3000 once said:
That’s a nega… tive comparison, embarrassin’/
Unfortunate that if you come up fortunate, the streets consider you lame/
…I thought the name of the game/
Was to have a better life; I guess it ain’t, what a shame/
Jake Got Ya Body is a catchy song that you can do the robot to— if you saw the [adult swim] ad, you know what I’m talkin’ about. The song is about cocaine and all the wonderful things it can bring to the fool who uses it. And not just to the fool who uses it, but also to the fool who distributes it. Some of my favorite lines are:
…You can spot a Jake nigga bitin’ down hard on they teeth/
…Jake makes a bad husband for a damsel in distress/
Lil Jake will take ya wind where ya ass can’t blow it/
Lil Jake will have ya nose running, and you don’t e’en know it/
…Thutty years for thutty ounces, previous drug charges on yo record/
Then there’s that chorus— “Jake gotcha body, whoa, whoa, whoa/ Jake gotcha body, that tissue in yo nose/”. Hearing EJ’s delivery really takes the lyrics to a different level; when he says “Whoa”, it really leans the listener, showcasing his talent as a rapper— as a voice worth listening to. And the cool thing is that he’s warning people against messing with Jake. When’s the last time you heard a rapper do that?!
King of the Beasts, the title track from another project that is included in this collection, is a beast of a track. I don’t even like talking about it; I like listening to it. A lot. It feels like Rudyard Kipling coming to Atlanta and telling the story of Rikki Tikki Tavi in ATLien-speak. And I don’t know where that sample came from— “Tell me why little hands are tight with fear”— but that thang messed with me in ways I can’t even articulate yet. Spine-tingling.
The album closes with the song Mercy, which I think is appropriate. The chorus goes:
Thank You for Your mercy; world wanna curse me/
Cuz I’m spiritual and earthly… thank You for Your Mercy/
Witchdoctor is an acquired taste, and I think this song speaks to his willingness to defy what’s familiar in order to deliver something we might not otherwise reach for. But he can do all that other stuff too. His music is omnipresent, but so hard to find that his image as an artist remains cloaked. In short, his ways are mysterious. But, before anyone claims him as something to worship, he’ll quickly tell ya, “Dez Only 1,” and return to the shadows from which he came.
From Atlanta, GA to Davenport, IO; we’re checkin for ya next project, EJ…
*Hey, U. Yeah, U. Oglethorpe U., 2001; U still got my Foxy Brown LP. Look me up; Earl Grey Summers. I miss ya 😉