In addition to possibly qualifying as the most neatly decorated of all Proper Boxes, This Is Hep wins high marks for being one of the biggest and best Cab Calloway collections ever assembled. With four CDs to fill and a considerably huge body of work to choose from, the folks at Proper covered many of the essentials by roping in highlights dating from a 19-year segment of his long and eventful career. Young Calloway's certifiably hot tracks include triumphs of artful rowdiness like "Bugle Call Rag," "St. Louis Blues," the famous "Scat Song," and a wild version of "Nagasaki," which features the extroverted vocalist at his most dazzling. The second category to consider, if we are to make organized sense of this nutty grab bag of swinging entertainments, would be songs with markedly topical content, like "The Jungle King," "Everybody Eats When They Come to My House," and "A Chicken Ain't Nothin' But a Bird." Calloway does delightfully weird things with his voice during "Chinese Rhythm," and although his bizarre chattering is funny, one cannot ignore the fact that he's making a mockery of a language spoken by fully one-fifth of the world's population. (A similarly entertaining if potentially insulting example of lampooned ethnicity is "Chinatown, My Chinatown" recorded by Slim Gaillard and Slam Stewart in 1938.) Calloway attracted lots of attention in the early '30s by singing about uncontrollable controlled substances. Two of the best of his dope tunes are "Reefer Man" and "The Man from Harlem." With the "Calloway Boogie," "Jumpin' Jive," and "Hey Now, Hey Now," Calloway helped to establish a trend in jump music. This category would also include Joe Liggins' "The Honeydripper" and Buster Harding's "I Want to Rock," with bouncing backup by a vocal harmony group billed as the Cabaliers.
Calloway was a master balladeer, capable of belting out a story line in hues and dimensions as vivid and grandiose as a Technicolor Hollywood drama screened in Cinemascope. In addition to his best known-song, "Minnie the Moocher" and its lurid sequel "Kickin' the Gong Around" (which contains a blunt reference to heroin addiction), Calloway's ballad stash on this set includes the operatically tragic "San Francisco Fan," the melodramatic "My Gal," "Geechee Joe," and a strong reading of "Blues in the Night." The voices backing Cab on the disarmingly sweet "I'll Be Around" are once again identifiable as the Cabaliers. A special category for Calloway classics would include his world-famous take on "St. James Infirmary," the full voice splendor of "The Hi De Ho Man (That's Me)," and two excellent nonsense numbers, "Hoy Hoy" and "Zaz Zuh Zaz," a creative variant on the "Minnie the Moocher" call-and-response formula. This category would also contain the smoothly elegant "Two Blocks Down, Turn to the Left" and a salute to tired musicians everywhere, "Fifteen Minute Intermission." Speaking of instrumentalists, the sixth and in some ways most musically significant category in any Calloway collection would consist of records without vocals which feature his finest players. Getting this bandleader to agree to make instrumental records at all appears to have been somewhat of a challenge, as he openly professed mystification as to why anyone would buy a Cab Calloway record without his voice on it. Most of the important instrumentals cut by his orchestra are included in this set. Dizzy Gillespie is featured on his own "Pickin' the Cabbage"; Milt Hinton is the star of "Pluckin' the Bass," and Jonah Jones is spotlit during "Jonah Joins the Cab." Alto saxophonist Hilton Jefferson plays pretty on "Willow Weep for Me" and tenor man Chu Berry interprets "A Ghost of a Chance," while "Paradiddle" and "Ratamacue" showcase flashy drummer Cozy Cole. Given the excellent packaging, remastering, selection, discography, and liner notes, Proper's This Is Hep is highly recommended. Only the JSP label has made a more thorough and comprehensive job of it, and that required eight CDs spread across two box sets. Proper's slim-line set works well as both introduction and tribute.