Escape is the second studio album by the hip-hop group Whodini. The album was recorded at Battery Studios in London, where the group worked with producer Larry Smith after their management could not find them a producer. Whodini member Jalil Hutchins convinced Smith, his friend, to produce the album when Smith needed money after a friend's hospitalisation. Although the group intended to record a more rock-oriented sound, their music has a synthethizer backing and a rhythm and blues influence.
The critically successful album was one of the first hip-hop albums certified platinum by the RIAA. The first hip-hop album to chart in the U.S. top 40, it was praised by NME and Robert Christgau.
After working on their first album, Whodini, the group toured Europe and made another tour with Kangol Kid and UTFO. Whodini had planned to travel to Israel and spend two weeks in Australia after their European tour, but changed their minds since they had been away from home for three weeks and found the tour "rigorous". Singer-songwriter Jalil Hutchins later said, "Somebody should've stepped in and made us [continue the tour]." The group worked well with producer Conny Plank on Whodini, and were trying to find a similar producer. According to Hutchins, "Hip-hoppers knew if Conny had an understanding of what hip hop was, and if we had an understanding of how to explain it to these musicians who were far ahead of us, we would’ve produced some special records. On the next album, we decided that we needed to get somebody from home that understood where we were coming from." Although Jive Records initially hired Russell Simmons and Smith to produce Escape, commitments in New York kept Simmons from the recording sessions.
Whodini member John Fletcher (Ecstasy) said that the group thought European audiences would be unfamiliar with their music, but they "found that lots of kids, lots of club owners, had made a real effort to get hold of our music. When we discovered that, we realized that the music we were working with really was universal, that we didn't have to think of a particular market. People everywhere like to dance, sweat and party, and they like the same kind of sounds." Hutchins had met producer Larry Smith at Disco Fever in New York City; although they were friends and often discussed music, he said that they did not originally consider working together. Jive Records could not find a producer, and Hutchins asked Smith to come to Europe and produce the album. The producer initially refused for financial reasons, but called Hutchins the following day saying that his guitarist needed money to pay a hospital bill. Smith and Hutchins then quickly met to develop music to show to the label, recording the bass for "Five Minutes of Funk".
Escape was recorded in 16 days at Battery Studios in London, with Hutchins often writing lyrics in the studio. He found it difficult to write a complete song at home, and finished the lyrics later. Hutchins worked well with Smith, and said that the producer became involved in the music-making and "would start talking a lot of shit to us to let us feel like he felt". Smith's presence is evident on "Friends", whose beat was (according to Hutchins) "nothing like the way it sounded after he got to it". Whodini and the studio personnel often argued; Hutchins said that he "never seen studio sessions like ours. Criticism would be flying around that studio like skyrockets and bullets ... But we knew we got something right when Larry started grabbing his dick, and that was the craziest thing in the world." Smith encouraged Whodini to use a variety of instruments on each track, from Linn LM-1 and Roland TR-707 drum machines to a Fender Jazz Bass.
Escape, "Five Minutes of Funk" in particular, was originally intended to be rock-oriented. Whodini planned to use a Minimoog synthesizer on the track, which Hutchins compared to the Isley Brothers' rawer music. Smith left his Minimoog at home, assuming that he could find one in the UK. Unable to find one, the group heard Run–D.M.C.'s "Rock Box" and decided to follow a more R&B-oriented direction. Smith said that although he was told to make the album sound like Run–D.M.C., he "didn't want to do exactly that. Whodini's a bit more adult, I think, and rap's not just for kids anymore."
Whodini's music has been called "rhythm & blues-based rap" prefiguring new jack swing, a hip-hop-influenced form of funk and the dominant form of R&B music from 1987 to 1993. Nelson George described Escape's music as a style which "black radio embraces ... defin[ing] radio-friendly, singles-oriented hip hop versus hard-core, more rhyme-centered rap"; over time, the divide between the two became more pronounced. Retrospective commentary on their music indicateds that although Whodini sounds tame compared to the later work of artists like Too Short and Ol' Dirty Bastard and groups like 2 Live Crew, the group was considered "rauncy and racy" during the mid-1980s on songs such as "Freaks Come Out at Night".
Unlike other hip-hop musicians, Whodini's backing music and beat were synthesizer-based. Escape contains tracks with minimal musical backing, such as "Big Mouth" and "Friends", and faster-paced music such as "Escape (I Need a Break)". Hutchins believed that the Fender Jazz Bass was part of Whodini's signature sound, and used it on "Five Minutes of Funk". Escape's lyrics are generally egocentric, but also explore the difficulty of city life ("Escape (I Need a Break)"), failed romance ("Friends") and New York's party lifestyle ("Freaks Come Out at Night").
The album was released on October 17, 1984 by Jive Records. According to the New York Times, before Escape Whodini had a large following in Britain and Europe; however, "Five Minutes of Funk" and "Freaks Come Out at Night" were now "heard almost constantly in New York dance clubs, as well as on local urban-contemporary radio stations". Ecstasy said that audiences were finally ready for hip-hop music, and Whodini were "just beginning to break through on radio. Rather than listening to Stevie Wonder or someone do an inferior version of rap, people want to hear the real thing, with the original complexity to it. This is the most complex, interesting stuff going on in black music today, and the radio's just beginning to discover that the public eats it up." By December 1984, the 7- and 12-inch singles "Friends" and "Five Minutes of Funk" were approaching sales of 350,000 and received more airplay than the "Magic's Wand" and "Haunted House of Rock" from Whodini's first album. Billboard reported the airplay, noting that despite the increased play the songs were unreported and played during the night. The month before Escape's release, Whodini appeared at the 1984 Swatch Watch New York City Fresh Fest as part of the first national tour featuring hip-hop groups. The 27-date tour featured Run–D.M.C., Kurtis Blow, The Fat Boys and Newcleus, and grossed $3.5 million.
Escape was the first hip-hop album to break into the top 40 of the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart. By 1986, Escape and Run–D.M.C.'s Raising Hell were the bestselling hip-hop albums; both were certified platinum by the RIAA. Comparing the groups in 1986, the Los Angeles Times reported: "Though Whodini's record sales are impressive, Run-D.M.C. has been a greater media attraction and a bigger critical favorite." Escape was re-released on compact disc in 2011 by the Traffic Group with several bonus tracks.
In a contemporary review, Robert Christgau gave Escape a grade of B+ and wrote that Hutchins and Smith "turn out ingratiating variations on a formula. Fortunately, the formula isn't tired yet". Although Christgau found the lyrics of "Freaks Come Out at Night" less intellectual than "Escape" or "Friends" and less musically interesting than "Five Minutes of Funk", he still considered it a strong song. NME described Escape as superior to Whodini's first album and praised Smith's production; his "sparse DMC sound here gives way to a rich and warm electronic soundscape which incorporates THOSE infectious rhythms". "Escape" was the album's best track, followed by "Big Mouth", "Out of Control", "We Are Whodini" and "Friends"; "Featuring Grandmaster Dee" was Escape's weak link, a "pointless instrumental reworking of "Five Minutes of Funk". Spin praised "Escape (I Need a Break)", comparing it to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message"; Whodini's song "focuses on the guy affected by social condition, not on the condition itself."
Among retrospective reviews, Fact noted that Escape was "eclipsed by the antics of the new school" and that it had "tumbled off of most casual fans’ bucket lists". According to AllMusic, the album was a "vast improvement over the previous year's debut" with "a countless amount of memorable lines and productions, and has held up over time better than the debut" but not "a conceptual masterpiece". The reviewer called "Freaks Come Out at Night" and "Five Minutes of Funk" classics, and "We Are Whodini" "distills the essence of the group more than the other groundbreaking tracks here, and still retains a sense of freshness". Trouser Press found the album "airy without being simple" and called it appealing and innovative. Fact placed Escape at number 98 on their list of top 1980s albums, calling it "diverting from end to end – something Spoonie G, The Cold Crush Brothers and The Furious Five conspicuously failed to deliver".
All songs are produced by Larry Smith.
Credits are adapted from the sleeve, sticker and back cover of Escape.Larry Smith – Producer
Nigel Green – Engineer
Ian Hooton – Sleeve photography
The Fish Family – Sleeve design