It was the dead of Winter. 1995. It’s late on a Saturday night in a land far away, at a time long ago, back when there was no Internet. There was only basic cable, so what’s a 15-year-old boy supposed to do? I used to masturbate to rap video hoes on Urban Xpressions on Channel 48 ‘cause it was local access and they would always show the “raw” versions the videos.

In between Patra and Wreckx-N-Effect videos, I remember seeing the gas flame on the stove, the red Hennesy jersey (not “Hennessy, ”but Hennesy with one S), the drum intro. “Shook Ones” changed my life forever that night.

My mother had just recently died of cancer, my grandfather got diagnosed with cancer (they gave ‘em nine months to live. He’s still alive and kicking with no treatment. FTW.), and my brother would die at the hands of the local police a year later.

‘95 and ‘96 were two of the hardest years of my life, and my ONLY coping mechanism was rap music. Mobb Deep was at the top of the list. Prodigy was my favorite rapper. He WAS New York street rap, and when executed masterfully, there’s nothing better.

I didn’t know Prodigy well, yet I felt his death the way people felt John Lennon’s death. It sent a shock wave through social media. Anyone who’s anyone showed respect, and I can truly say we all lost one with his passing. I’m extremely grateful for his contributions, and even more grateful that I got the dream opportunity to get him on a song this year—which was YEARS in the making. I don’t know if we’ll ever recover from losing someone like Prodigy. For all of the true Prodigy heads like myself, I wanted to share some of his greatest deep cuts.

Mobb Deep & Kool G Rap – “The Realest”

The first time I ever heard “The Realest” was on Thug Thursdays. After Stretch & Bobbito split and were doing every other week, Stretch Armstrong played “Thug Muzik” and “The Realest” back to back. It was not only my favorite Mobb Deep song ever, but maybe my favorite song of all time. It was also my first official introduction to the Alchemist who became my favorite producer and REALLY gave Prodigy a second wind. It’s crazy how you can go from The Infamous to Hell on Earth to Murda Muzik, then you add someone like ALC and the whole dynamic changes for the better. It’s fucking incredible to this day.

Prodigy – “Money Is a Weapon”

Ignore the date on the embedded video; this was one of the last things they leaked before finishing HNIC 2 when P went to prison. This is Prodigy at the absolute top of his game. 2007-2008 was nothing but incredible music. Some people may recognize the beat; 50 Cent used the same ALC instrumental for “The Mechanic,” which is probably why this song never went much further than this video. I prefer “Money is a Weapon,” and I think you will as well. The video is gritty and raw, the music is gritty and raw…what more could you ask for?

Prodigy, Un Pacino & H Brando – “They Want Me Dead”

This is the hardest shit ever. Un Pacino and H Brando are Far Rock street legends. They’re in a group called Hard White alongside Scott Cane, Boogz Boogets, and Mumbles. They were breaking through around the time Un Pacino illustrated some of the realest rap shit ever, only to go down hard for a home invasion. Prodigy was already in prison when Product of the 80’s dropped, and it’s just raw. It’s everything I want in a street record. The intro alone is Un Pac listing federal prisons that he may or may not end up doing time in. Sid Roams’s eerie signature backdrop plays perfectly. Product of the 80’s is a GREAT record that unfortunately missed a lot of listeners, which could be due to Prodigy being in jail. When you’re out of sight, you’re out of mind.

The Almighty RSO ft. Prodigy – “The War’s On”

Do yourself a favor and just skip to 1:52 in the video. You don’t need to see Benzino and his Bostonian Goon Squad ruining this ridiculously ill Havoc beat. Prodigy absolutely kills it. “Fuck a pearly white gate, all that bullshit is fake, the only gates I see is if they send the God upstate.” And this was ’96; this was post-Infamous when Prodigy was pretty much the most in-demand street rapper in the business. This passed everybody by because, again, even pre-Eminem beef who the fuck wants to hear anyone on this song except for Prodigy? Maybe Dart Adams (hi, Dart)? Prodigy flamed the shit out of this song and it should’ve been something in the tuck for Mobb Deep to use. Incredible verse.

Mobb Deep & I20 – “When It Comes To Beef”

Alchemist looped up Isaac Hayes; Prodigy and Havoc both spit vintage verses. This is off ALC’s Insomnia mixtape, which is flawless in its own right. Prodigy spits a cryptic flow about his cousin Craig catching bodies at Wendy’s, a sneak diss to Bone Thugs-n-Harmony for no real reason, and it’s just what makes Mobb Deep great. Less is more in every conceivable fashion, leading to an incredible listening experience. This came out in 2003. It’s 2017, and I still don’t know who I20 is. It doesn’t matter. He provided the hook and kept it movin’ apparently. Was he cousin Craig? Hmmm.

Prodigy & Cormega – “Three”

My favorite song off the original HNIC album. This shit is no frills: the Alchemist beat, no hook, and both verses are fire. This is riding music. Point. Blank. Period.

Mobb Deep – “It’s Over”

Havoc killed the Eric Gale sample, and this was during a lull—if you could even call it that. I loved the Free Agents mixtape. It wasn’t well-received, but this was the B-side to “Solidified” on the 12″ and I thought it was clearly the highlight of the Free Agents mixtape. “You know you love our style, get off our dick.” It’s some smooth G-shit especially for 2003, when the music was clearly shifting toward a whole new paradigm. They stayed tried and true to what they do best. I love “It’s Over.”

Prodigy – “Bang On Em”

You could pick any song off Return Of The Mac, but this is my personal favorite for selfish reasons. The sample is The Montclairs, which I had JUST flipped maybe a few weeks before I heard “Bang On Em” and retired my low rent version for good. I was astonished by how Alchemist flipped it. P spit that futuristic, yet vintage street shit, and a few days later I heard the whole project. I said it then, it was an instant classic. Now in 2017, I think Return Of The Mac is the last classic album. It’s the only album in the past decade where you don’t have to skip a single track. It flows seamlessly, the synergy between Alchemist and Prodigy is perfect, the features were minimal and effective, and I’m going to listen to Return Of The Mac as soon as I’m done writing this.

Prodigy & Nas – “Tick Tock”

The best song off Alchemist’s 1st Infantry album. Nas and P sound like they did in the Infamous days. It illustrates a tale of growing up in NYC, and the beat is some of the smoothest laid back G-shit you’ll ever hear. I remember when I first heard the leaked Nas verse, no one even knew Prodigy was on it. Then when the full version was on ALC’s album, I skipped everything to listen to “Tick Tock” first. It’s one of the best Alchemist beats of all time.

Prodigy & Big Twins – “What A Real Mobb Do”

There was a snippet of Prodigy driving around in his Porsche listening to this song. It never came out on anything officially, and I remember searching far and wide for days. It leaked on the net via Tapemasters, Inc. This shit is a rugged Alchemist beat with P just spitting. It’s around the time they were doing Return of the Mac, as several songs off that were leaked via mixtapes like Stuck On You and Legends. This song never went beyond the Internet I don’t think, which is a damn shame ‘cause it’s the hardest shit out there.

Vanderslice has produced for the likes of Prodigy, Action Bronson, Styles P, Jadakiss, Evidence, and Freddie Gibbs. His upcoming project “The Best Album Money Can Buy” is slated for a Fall release. Check out his beats here: https://vanderslice.bandcamp.com/

This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.

On a steamy, sun-splashed late Saturday afternoon in late Spring—in the Northern Liberties section of the City of Brotherly Love—we are gathered around an outdoor table, underneath sets of raised train tracks, outside a neighborhood dive called The El Bar. It would still be eleven days before Summer 2017 was scheduled to officially begin, and ten days before the music world mourned the premature passing of legendary emcee Prodigy of Mobb Deep.

Sitting across the table are Teef and Big Cuz, each engaged in a “Citywide Special” salute: clinking shots of cheap whisky in one hand before throwing that back, then washing it down with a long swig of domestic canned beer in the other. It’s a combination that, at the cost of good taste, costs just $3.50, making it the best bang-for-your-buck buzz you can find in Philly. “To E-Dubb,” goes the shared toast prior to the proceedings. This in tribute to a far less storied artist in the annals of rap history to pass in 2017 than Prodigy, but a younger peer much more central to this pair’s own shared story and friendship: Evan Sewell Wallace aka “E-Dubble”.

They first met E-Dubble a few years ago, just a few blocks away, at a local live music venue and bar called The Fire. It was there that a Philadelphia-raised, Wissahickon High School basketball center, twenty-turned-early-thirtysomething rapper named E-Dubble could often be found. He would cast a large shadow via his considerably large frame, while seated at the corner of The Fire’s bar in between sets, or lurking outside in the shadows by the steps outside the venue, painstakingly penning new rhymes, into one of the notebooks that he carried around with him at all times.

E-Dubble garnered a degree of underground hip-hop fame earlier in the decade, via his year-long “Freestyle Friday” series, in which he released a new addition to the series every Friday, for 53 straight weeks from February 5th 2010 to January 28th 2011. The series spawned songs like “Let Me Oh (Freestyle Friday #9),” which have now racked up nearly 14 million views on YouTube.

The “Freestyle Friday” series also helped him use that following to help build his independent Black Paisley Records label, which he used to release a plethora of singles and mixtapes, an EP and two studio albums, over the course of his too-short life and career. His last album, Two Tone Rebel, dropped in the Fall of 2016, with a follow-up Two Tone Rebel II, planned for release in the Spring of 2017.  

Tragically, E-Dubble did not make it to see this Spring. He went from tweeting out an invite to fans to a Two Tone Rebel video shoot at The Fire on January 13, to posting an Instagram update from a hospital bed after falling ill from a rare virus a week later, then fighting for his life over the following weeks in a hospital, before passing away on Valentine’s Day.

Big Cuz is one of The Fire’s longest tenured figures in the venue’s local rap scene. He’s been coming down to The Fire to promote parties, rock open-mics, perform and host rap shows since 2002. In addition to recording his own rap projects, he’s also growing his #MostSleptOn mixtape DJ series, while recently beginning to branch out into broadcasting locally on Philly FM radio. He’s the type of dude who knows everybody in the Philly underground, who his neighbor-turned-friend-and-now-roommate Teef explains, “always ends up hosting, even if he’s not hosting.”

While still wrestling with the still-fresh shock of E-Dubble’s untimely demise, Cuz fondly reflects back on his friend and occasional musical co-conspirator: “My first thought when I met him at The Fire was ‘GODDAMN, YOU BIG AS SHIT!,’” a sudden feeling Big Cuz recalls with a laugh, “I think that might’ve been the first thing I said to him, too! E-Dubb was cool, laid back. He didn’t really traverse around town too much. He pretty much would just go to The Fire, but once in a while we’d come over here too. He was actually the first one who put us on to Citywides.”

Latifius White, aka Latifius Maximus III, aka “Teef”, is a Willingboro, NJ-bred, Philadelphia-based rap artist. He’s the third generation of his family to record and perform music professionally. It’s a calling that he does not enter into lightly. Long before his friendship with Big Cuz, then later E-Dubble were forged at The Fire by proximity and shared interests, Teef, an Air Force veteran, was literally forging things in fire for a living as a welder—a skilled trade he still plies whenever he needs to make ends meet when rap can’t cover it. Despite growing up on rapping for fun as a teen, he was hesitant to actually try doing it for real, because the lofty standard set by his forbearers was not one he felt he could rise to by rapping.

Teef’s grandfather, Fats Domino, is a pioneering music legend and member of the first class inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. His mother, Karen Domino White, was a popular Gospel artist recording for Priority Records and executive produced by Black Market Records owner and Brotha Lynch Hung producer Cedric Singleton in the mid-‘90s, while Priority was putting out many profane, multi-platinum, rap classics via their Death Row and No Limit subsidiaries.

When speaking on his familial musical heritage, Teef explains humbly, yet matter-of-factly. “I was raised around music,” he recalls. “I played piano and tenor saxophone growing up. I didn’t really get the gall to get up there and say I’m a rapper until like two years ago. It took me awhile. My mother is a gospel-singer, with a seven-octave range. I was just rapping, you know? So, I didn’t think about stepping out there like that. It basically took me getting laid off from my job at some point, but having just enough money saved up to be able to say ‘fuck it’ and give it a go.”

It was that decision that led to Teef, who’d been promoting R&B shows and parties locally for years, to finally booking his first show at The Fire, where he shared the stage with E-Dubble, Big Cuz and DJ Wrecka. The friendship between these two roommates and their new gentle-giant friend, with the rhyme books, record label, production/songwriting chops and high-end home recording studio, all bloomed from there, with a deep love of hip-hop being the foundation they could collectively build upon. Before long they were supporting each other, both on and off-stage, ripping shows and cutting one-off teasers like “All the Way Up (215 Remix)” last year, while formulating more ambitious plans for the future.

Teef: “We’ve got mad stories—together and one-on-one with E Dubb. He was a good brother down the block, you know? Definitely had some plans ahead, and we’re certainly still feeling the loss of a good friend. I can only wonder what could have truly grown from the three of us, seems like we had barely even scratched the surface.”

Big Cuz: “The whole thing with E-Dubb, was that we were supposed to have a really big Summer. He was gonna drop the two projects (Two Tone Rebel and Two Tone Rebel II), and then we were gonna set up a tour. So, like, we woulda been on tour right now…he always had tracks on deck, he had the studio. He was always trying to get it right, sending tracks. “Me and Teef, we’re hustling right now, trying to fill it up, because we got plans, fuck that, we got shit to do.”

After a couple of hours spent chopping it up at El Bar—walking the backstreets of Northern Liberties to avoid the police, fire truck, and ambulance-draped scene due to an overturned vehicle in the middle of Frankford & Girard, stopping at a local pizza joint for a slice, then making the trek over to Big Cuz and Teef’s apartment which houses their makeshift studio—day has now officially turned to night. We make tentative plans to get up again, for a show at The Fire, with an open invitation from both to peep a recording session in action whenever Teef is a little less exhausted, following two straight days and nights of ripping and running.

“Works for me,” comes my reply, while busy trying to keep my own head together, on the way to cover the Camp Lo & Friends show, taking place later a little further down the street at Johnny Brenda’s, before having to drive myself home in the wee hours, then be up in a suit, ready to deliver some words on mic to the group gathered at my own childhood friend’s memorial service later on that morning.

Guess that’s how life, love, or music work. All plans are subject to change, in the blink of an eye, at any given time. While sometimes when you lose a partner, some part of that part two that they’d been planning but never got to do, lives on through you.

E-Dubble, Rest in Peace.

Best of luck, Cuz & Teef.

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From Griselda To Shady: The Story of Westside Gunn and Conway’s Meteoric Rise

Brothers Conway and Westside Gunn are taking over the game. Dana Scott chops it up with the dynamic duo on their beginnings and where they plan to go with Shady Records.

Since 2012, Westside Gunn and his brother Conway The Machine have built a devoted fan base, while becoming the most dynamic duo since Ghostface and Raekwon or even Mobb Deep. The brothers each have released countless mixtapes and albums, including Westside Gunn’s critically acclaimed debut album Flygod in 2016. They’ve built their following with some of the best hardcore rap filled with haute couture designer name-drops, old school WWE homages (see their Hall & Nash EP as one example), habitual gunplay onomatopoeias (doot-doot-doot! bddddddd!!), and drug game noir about their poverty-stricken Buffalo, a perennial selection in national polls as one of America’s deadliest cities.

“To my niggas using Corrlinks hold your head

Remember Chine Gun used to piss in the bed

Remember hot dogs getting boiled for the party

Off White fatigues, lord, Griselda’s the army”

(from “Looking Like The Greatest” featuring Conway and Benny off Hitler On Steroids)

Having seen it all, the 35-year old Westside Gunn’s confidence level is as heightened as the mountains of upstate New York. His motivation to succeed and expand his reach beyond his home base of Buffalo, New York to Atlanta comes from growing up fast having children as a teenager. The Flygod speaks about his life mission to financially support his children down South instead of Buffalo and his business savvy. “When you go back from Buffalo to Atlanta, and you got two kids already, now you gotta get money,” he says. “The genius I am, I figured, ‘Hey, it’s money and its supply and demand. What’s in Buffalo that’s needed that I can bring from Atlanta? What’s Atlanta need that I can bring from Buffalo?’ A couple of big chains and foreign cars later, where else I’ma live?”

Westside Gunn

When most people would retreat in despair upon similar circumstances, Westside Gunn welcomes the challenge of fatherhood by running to it instead of away from it. As he was being a breadwinner to provide for his kids, Westside knew that he had a purpose to stake his claim in the world via rap music and bring his friends with him for the ride.

The Formation of Griselda Records

Originally titled Street Entertainment, Westside Gunn renamed the label in 2012 after the late Colombian drug empress Griselda Blanco. But most of the Griselda Records camp has been through a litany of life hardships along the way towards stardom. That includes, but not limited to, losing their lifelong compatriot and rhyme partner Machine Gun Black’s life to gun violence. Conway details the crew’s trials on fan favorite “The Cow.” Conway was shot twice in the head, suffering from Bell’s palsy, plus served two years in prison. Westside Gunn served multiple years in federal prison, and their longtime partner in rhyme Benny The Butcher was jailed for several years in New York State prison as well.

The collective of Westside Gunn, Conway, Benny the Butcher, and his late brother Machine Gun Black coalesced as friends during their grammar school days when they were called Forerunners. Before their run-ins with the law, their label was originally named Street Entertainment. Benny further explains why being from Buffalo gives them the impetus to fight for their recognition.

“Coming from Buffalo, it was harder, but look where we are,” Benny says. “The thing about it is that we’ve been rapping for so long that you can go back and Google me about how I’ve been here. I’m like a folk hero for Buffalo’s music scene. If we came from any other major city, we probably would’ve been popped by now. I’m 32 years old. In my region I’m considered a legend. Conway, too. We been doing rap, so it’s like a relief for the city. It’s like ‘Oh shit, those dudes did it!’ And it’s not like we’re new dudes who popped up out of nowhere.”

The Flygod is far from being a rookie to the game, but there was a point in time in which he stopped rapping for seven years when he was dealing with his legal matters. But some would argue that he’s one of the hottest rappers just getting started.

The hip-hop community has had mixed reactions for the 2017 XXL Freshman Class cover, and many fans of Griselda have begrudged that Westside Gunn and Conway deserve to be on the cover. Wes doesn’t necessarily look at the recent issue without him on it as a snub. Instead, he’s quite diplomatic and acknowledged that he’s not a freshman in terms of his age, tenure in the rap game, and how to he’d like to market himself.

“I love it, they’re doing their job,” Wes opined. “Anybody in the industry would love to be on a cover. But it’s about the right cover. I would love to be on the cover of XXL, but not as a freshman. You know what? All that shit is for kids. When you go to these festivals and these concerts, that’s the wave right now. I don’t got a problem with none of them. I’m happy for them because they young, they getting money and they pursuing their dream. That’s their lane and everybody ain’t in that lane. For whoever is in that lane, they pick the best.”

Their endless references, skits, and song titles like “Peter Luger,” “Sly Green,” and “Free Chapo,” or similes involving Rayful Edmonds, the magazine covers for F.E.D.S. or Don Diva would seem more apropos for Griselda’s music content than an XXL Freshman Class cover.

The Griselda Sound

Much of Griselda’s music content eviscerates jocularity and prudence, accompanied by melodic dark beats that sound like a street gang marching toward enemy lines. With his business partner and brother Conway, Benny, and formidable producer Daringer, their fledgling label Griselda Records has a sound comprised of boom-bap and soul samples of ‘90s East Coast gangsta rap. Benny broke down their musical inspirations from that time period: “That CNN, Wu, and Mobb era, you hear that in our music and the beats,” Benny explains. “Like how Prodigy mentioned ‘dirty fingernails.’ And when you listen to CNN, Mobb and Wu, they were like the John Gotti gangster type of rappers, street frontline rap. Not like no B.I.G. or Jay-Z in suits, but crime boss mob shit. It’s more impactful. We real street frontline niggas; so that’s where that comes from. That’s what we listened to, and we took a lot from that.”

The sound of Griselda Records is simultaneously invasive and mellow with samples of seventies heavy metal guitar riffs, prog rock, fusion jazz, and mellow soul samples that pour out of your speakers like molasses. Daringer—who began making beats in 2005 after deejaying for several years in Buffalo’s underground hip-hop scene—programs and records his beats on his laptop’s digital MPC Studio and ProTools while on tour. But he always seeks organic analog equipment, including an MPC 2000xl and MPC 2500 with a turntable and a Fender Road telecaster guitar to create his minimalist, industrial boom-bap beats with the pace of 60 to 70 beats per minute. The producer explains his approach to his beatmaking for Griselda’s projects:

“I sample breaks, but a lot of the times I take breaks that may be common to some, I pitch them down and get them in that slower tempo, it kinda disguises theme a little bit,” he says. “Once I slow these records down and the breaks as well, it gives me a certain sound and it just sounds grittier, to make the mood a bit darker. [They] actually preferred these records to be slowed down. We have the upbeat stuff too, but even our upbeat stuff isn’t that fast at the end of the day. That’s just the zone that they like it.” He continues, “When you speed it up, you get that classic boom-bap ‘90s hip-hop feel or sounds altogether. All the past productions play a huge influence of how I listen to records and pick out samples and use drums. Heads were really digging back in the day and that shit inspired me to keep that art still going. A lot of people think that it’s easy to find records with the internet nowadays to go on and find some stuff, going the easy route. You can, but I always put more time and effort and every dollar to my name to find shit. It’s always about taking that extra step.”

Strengthening The Griselda Movement With Rap Legend Co-Signs, Hate, and Perseverance

 

During the Griselda on Steroids tour stop at New York City’s Webster Hall in June, rap legends including Raekwon, Styles P and Jadakiss, Roc Marciano, and the late Prodigy came to give their props to Westside Gunn, Conway, and Benny. It was a manifestation that Griselda has ascended as the one of the strongest movements to come out of New York State.

Westside Gunn explains why he eschewed the festival circuit in order to be seen as a headliner on his own tour and sell his crew’s GxFR merchandise, which are all the rage amongst his fans:

“The first time I wanted people to see me was our own [Griselda] tour,” he says. “Now I want to do all the festivals, the A3Cs, the SXSW’s, whatever. We could’ve been doing those forever. But it was about first time I want people to people to see me in the flesh, I wanted it to be some shit that we do.”

 

They don’t take this showing of gratitude for keeping New York’s legacy alive for granted. Benny still believes there is a lot for his cohorts to keep the fight going because of industry shadiness they’ve experienced. “In the industry, Griselda is still taking everything we get,” he adds. “Nobody handed us nothing. You watched the [Funk Flex] freestyle. Flex don’t even wanna fuckin’ crack a smile or he didn’t even want to say, ‘Yo they dope!’ or as soon as we got off the air he exchanged numbers with Conway and told us, ‘People don’t do it in one take like y’all did it.’ He didn’t wanna say nothing on the air because that would be handing us his co-sign because he knows what that means. But it’s too late because we got co-signs from the Jadakiss’s, the Mobbs, Wu-Tang Clans, and all that. We see the shady behavior because of where we’re from.”

Beyond the traditionalist New York sound, Conway recently stepped beyond their comfort zone to show how he can rework the most popular rap songs of the year in Kendrick Lamar’s chart-topping “Humble” to show his artistic range on his most recent mixtape Reject On Steroids.

“I like the record. I was working on Reject On Steroids mixtape and I liked [the beat]. When I do my mixtapes I like fucking with different instrumentals and all of that,” he says. “But I love that [Kendrick album] and that record. When I found that instrumental I said ‘hold on, lemme see how I can play with this one real quick.”

Conway

Conway—who’s known for his physical aesthetic, along with his muscular delivery and baritone voice—shows love to wanting to work with more West Coast artists of his element. He states his love of old school R&B artists. “I fuck with ScHoolboy, Kendrick, and MURS. I wanna work with Bobby Brown. I wanna work with Stephanie Mills [laughs].”

Now that Westside Gunn is seeing his hard work finally pay off, he and Conway introduced in March to their fans that they’ve joined forces with Eminem to become the next group act that will revive Shady Records and be the next way under Slim Shady’s watch. But to mark their first song with his camp, they paid their respects by naming their first song for Shady after their fallen comrade Machine Gun Black.

Westside Gunn declared that their music will remain the same in their creative process without having to acquiesce to Eminem’s prototypical sound for crossover appeal.

“It’s still gonna remain Griselda. It don’t matter who you with,” Gunn says. “Shout out to Shady and Interscope. Just keep expecting the grimy, raw shit. Ain’t shit changing at all. Don’t think just because we got signed that we’re about to switch or change our style up. Everything you ever heard is gonna remain the same. The formula’s there. You’re never gonna stop Griselda.”

Photo Credits: Shady Records

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