It's been a long time coming but finally the follow up to 2007's Human The Death Dance drops and it sees Mr. Francis all grown up. I remember seeing Sage Francis at Plastic People many many years ago as he stood in the middle of the crowd spitting venomously into his mic and backed by a CD of recorded beats that he himself had to operate. Well Li(f)e is a far cry from that set up and is the first time Sage's unique and intricate poetry is given the panoramic backdrop of a a full and live band, not to mention the guest appearances. Opener Little Houdini sees Sage hook up with Grandaddy's Jason Lytle and Slow Man teems up with Joey Burns of Calexico. The result is a far richer concoction and one that works on may levels. It's more low key than previous releases and the warmth with which his beats emanate seem to give Sage's rhymes more body.
Three Sheets To The Wind livens up the general slow pace with Death Cab For Cutie's Chris Walla on guitar, Slow Man shimmers with midwest heat and closer The Best OF Times continues Sage's tradition of ending on an epic note. WIth rich orchestration he wrenches the heartstrings to the bitter end.Read more 3.5 star reviews
Ice T still got it. Aimee Mann just felt his wrath.
Spare a thought for Gang Starr rapper Guru today - who fell into a coma over the weekend after suffering a heart attack.
Yoni Wolf of Why? has done a 4 song session on Daytrotter, download it here.
Felt 3: A Tribute To Rosie Perez
"The boys are back, the boys of summer, and this time Ace Rock is the drummer." Thus states Murs on the opening track to his and Slug's collaborative project Felt's third installment. As is customary, this record is too named after a B-List celebrity that happens to be taking their fancy at the moment and while Christina Ricci and Lisa Bonet were pretty damn solid releases Felt 3 has the added bonus of featuring the mighty Aesop Rock on production duties and the results are effortlessly special.
Murs and Slug boast two of indie raps smoothest flows and when put side by side the rhymes are liquid. It's good to see these MC's out from behind their day jobs and Aesop Rock certainly gives them a plentiful backdrop on which to perform. His beats are crunching and refreshingly unpredictable. Meticulously crafted they glisten with detail and boom with such depth. It would be impossible not to raise your game as an MC to assure that this backdrop doesn't make you look bad. And raise their game they do.
Individually Murs and Slug have rarely slipped up and together their powers are two-fold. Hip hop collaborations are not always a guaranteed success, with egos and flows often finding it hard to play nicely together but as Felt, Murs and Slug rhyme like one entity. The lyrics bounce in every way, between each beat and between each MC, as they alternate verses and slot in rhymes each song evolves into impressively complex constructions. Ace slices these rhymes up with expert precision on the beats, they're equally complex, they're very dense and and very Def Jux. It was a tough ask to contribute anything to a project that already had a flawless back catalogue but with the addition of Ace this collaboration has turned into a supergroup for sure.Read more 3.5 star reviews
Nice article up on SF Bay Guardian charting the history of legendary hip-hop label Anticon. Celebrating its 10th anniversary the article plots the evolution of the label and features input from artists like Sole, DoseOne, Alias and Why?
Seven months ago the FREEhoudini tape heralded the return of this now legendary partnership between two of Anticon's biggest players. Now after all this time Dose One and Jel return with their third proper album under Themselves. Much water has passed under the bridge since the last record. We've had bands like cLOUDDEAD further the abstract tendencies of Dose and we've seen Subtle rise from yet another side project for these two to become a real powerhouse band, not to mention their work with The Notwist in 13 & God. The result is CrownsDown a comeback record of epic proportions that incorporates all the skills picked up by these other formations and one that sounds a million miles from 2002's mesmerizing The No Music.
The recent Eskimo Snow record from Yoni Wolf has seen Why? take a giant leap away from any kind of hip-hop associations and in contrast CrownsDown is Dose and Jel's total emersion in the genre. This is a hip-hop record through and through. It's ten tracks serve as the Commandments of rap and encompass the archetypal themes that unite bands such as Gang Star, Public Enemy and Ultramagnetic MC's. You've got the 'guess who's back' jam of opener Back II Burn, the 'diss rap' of Oversleeping and the 'don't copy my style' cut of The Mark, and this is all in the first three songs. Nothing that is spat from the dexterous lips of Dose comes without its fair share of irony and while the tongue seems firmly in cheek during some of these moments of rap stereotype it sure is bizarre to witness. If irony goes on too long at what point does it start becoming genuine intention? The 'don't fuck with my DJ' jam seems to embody this totally. Skinning The Drum sees Jel flexing his DJ muscle by cutting up the Apache and Cold Sweat breaks back and forth as Dose references Ice Cube with the line "hey Jel, make it ruff."
Over many years of following every twist and turn from these two I have often wondered what would happen if they gave in to hip-hop, well this is my answer and while I find it quite strange it is undoubtedly one of the most impressive rap albums I've heard in a while. Dose's flow has evolved throughout his work with Subtle to a booming growl. His high pitched rapid-fire has morphed into something way more threatening and muscular. The speed is increased and the rhymes are lightning. Jel's beats come with equal ferocity and velocity. The No Music and their work with Deep Puddle Dynamics was all about intricate layering of effects and vocals, haze and fuzz would accompany any lyric to create a murky sonic composition out of which would emerge dazzling moments of crisp punctuation. This has a totally different agenda. The layers are still there but the fuzz has subsided leaving more fully formed raps and deep, pounding beats punched directly to your chest.
This isn't the case for every song and these battle raps mostly sum up the first half with the second retreating into the more delicate territory we are used to. Daxstrong is the 'spread-love' song which pays tribute to the Subtle founder Dax Pierson who was paralyzed in a tour accident in 2005. Dax also sings an auto-tune verse on the following You Ain't It which acts as direct contrast to Dose's jagged speed delivery and Jel's apocalyptic drum beats.
CrownsDown is both a toppling of false hip-hop idols that may have risen in their absence and also a humble tip of the crown to acts that have paved the way for both these two artists. Having pushed the envelope to such an extent on your first few releases the only way to go is this I guess. The 'don't copy my style' sentiment that runs through a few of these tracks seems slightly unnecessary as since they first emerged there has been little hip-hop around that could possibly be accused of being capable of this. I find that the more Subtle emerge from the underground, the less they hold my interest and with the first few listens of CrownsDown I feared the same may be said for this long awaited comeback. There are moments here that stand out as being uncharacteristically obvious but as a whole it is a dense piece of work that sets the heart racing with very characteristic excitement. In its obviousness it asks more questions than it answers, and we'd expect nothing less from a Themselves album. CrownsDown is a long-awaited comeback and one that drops with curious yet impressive magnitude.Read more 3.5 star reviews
Without sounding like the indie-rock equivalent of Adrian Mole, Yoni Wolf's writing is certainly getting darker. The self loathing, acute honesty and constant suicide mentions that made up Alopecia were buoyed by a dry wit that made you think that he was well aware of his failings but had them under control. Eskimo Snow was written at the same time as Alopecia and the difference here is the almost complete absence of the wit which works to expose the self-loathing in all its miserable glory. But it's glorious nonetheless and further goes to highlight Yoni Wolf as one of the best writers of our time.
We were warned in recent interviews by Wolf that Eskimo Snow would be the least hip-hop of all work as Why?. I found Alopecia tough to appreciate in its early days for this very reason and while these new songs make the transformation from odd-ball hip-hop to odd-ball indie-pop totally complete the jump doesn't seem as cavernous due to its predecessor and so my appreciation of this is more instant. I don't know of an artist to have made such a successful jump and while Eskimo Snow seems like the end of something that Alopecia started it signals a bright future for this gloomy chap. It's now possible to use the word 'gloomy' with the comfort and satisfaction you might when talking about a Morrissey record. This is a 'bare-bones' album, the most stark and revealing of all their work. The confessions of insecurity and discomfort aren't masked in clever rhetoric but laid out in sometimes crude honesty. It's like he's done with talking around the subject of his own patheticness and this album is the coming-to-a-head of many factors. After this things may be different, but for now this shit just has to be said.
This pinnacle aspect of the record can be seen in all its glory on Into The Shadows Of My Embrace. Opening with the confession, "Now the world is my good confessional monkey / But it'll take a bus load of high-school soccer girls to wash those hospitals off me," he then changes up the pedestrian tempo and launches into a relentless, pounding list of confessions. As he gabbles this list his honesty is barely containable and strains to keep up with the musical tempo that dictates. After all this comes the shrieked line; "Saying all this in public should make me feel funny, but you gotta yell something you should never tell nobody." It marks the loudest his voice has ever got and heralds in a new dawn of heavy, swirling guitars.
The lyrical honesty is not the only factor that makes Eskimo Snow so stark. The song structure is so different from Alopecia that it's hard to imagine them being conceived in the same sessions. Many of these songs make no apologies for going nowhere. They either build to nothing or don't build at all. They stare you square in the face declaring, what you see is what you get. Opener These Hands should be a closing lament rather than the chosen one to welcome us all to this record. It shuffles by almost unnoticed in its misery than fades from view leaving awkward silence. And the innuendo filled Even The Good Wood Gone spends its entirety promising a crescendo, but gives up. But in anyone else's hands this would smack as a bunch of semi-thought out sketches that shouldn't have seen the light of day. Under these guys it becomes a startlingly refreshing and intricately perceived album. In its barren focus they have coaxed some of the most beautiful songs in their repertoire. One Rose and Berkley By Horseback twinkle with fragility with their shimmering piano and Wolf's clear-as-day nasal delivery.
This is a worthy answer to the staggering Alopecia and even though it may appear to be the first full step along the indie-pop road, its unbridled creativity poses more questions about the future direction of this band than answers. It may not have the shining peaks of Alopecia, it is more of a blanket soaking, but its depth is unfathomable at this early stage. The Anticon hip-hop spirit lives strong in this record so I leave you with Wolf's mission statement on the penultimate gem, This Blackest Purse. "I want to speak at an intimate decibel, with the precision of an infinite decimal / To listen up and send back a true echo, of something forever felt but never heard / I want that sharpened steel of truth in every word." Not that he's ever done anything else, if this is the only hint at where we may find this band next, I for one am all ears.Read more 4 star reviews
This guy's coming to my wedding for sure...
Free Mixtapes galore:
Those generous cats at Strange Famous Records have two awesome mixtapes available absolutely free. Sick Of Wasting is by the man himself Sage Francis and is the fifth in this series which collects songs written between 1996 - 2009 and B. Dolan's House Of Bees Vol. 1 is well worth it. Choice cuts include Be A Star on Sick Of Wasting which uses a neat little Joy Division sample and B. Dolan's ode to Vin Diesel, which is quite touching.
While we're on the subject of free mixtapes if you haven't checked out Buck 65's Dirtbike series you haven't lived. 3 One hour tracks featuring everyone you can think of and all for zero dólares.
Anticon's newest signing is a textural piece of left-field hip hop that dredges the depths of the human condition but manages to shimmer with excitement in the subtlest of ways. Serngeti & Polyphonic are a duo from Illinois and this is their sophomore record but debut for Anticon. Separately they couldn't have more contrasting upbringing and it's these differences that form the basis of their sound. Serengeti, born David Cohn, grew up in Chicago with his mother - a secretary, atheist and devout Communist on the then all-black South Side and with his father - a stressed, middle class business owner in the then all-white suburbs. So while he was busy handing out copies of Socialist Worker at May Day rallies Polyphonic (Will Freyman) was taking piano lessons at his dad's behest. So what we have as a result of all this is a duo who construct fiercely intelligent hip hop that is acutely tuned to this experience of life, but is surrounded and supported by an incredibly sophisticated musical structure.
Serengeti's delivery is monotone and reluctant, it plods and mumbles as if oblivious of the textures that encircle it. At first his connection with his sonic surroundings seems awkward and jarring. After all, he raps about characters that are constantly struggling to belong or connect with their surroundings so this lack of cohesion with the beats is quite apt. But as the record progresses this disjointedness never changes but seems to become the very glue that binds these songs. Polyphonic conjures some of the most complex soundscapes I've heard in this genre for some time. They are incredibly fragile and once analysed seem to exist on virtually nothing at all. They shimmer like TV static and glisten like a rain soaked city at 2am. They are polished with electronic precision and it's this that makes them bounce off the murky, buried vocals that occupy their cold environments.
Despite the fragility of these beats this music is dense to say the least. It's cold and empty and yet so overflowing at the same time. Like fine rain that goes virtually unnoticed but eventually soaks you to the skin, Cohn's deadpan observations tumble from the crackling atmospherics like dirty water from an overflowing street sewer. His depictions of place and the people that inhabit it are razor sharp and paint a lonely picture of modern-day struggle and confusion. Like Antipop Consortium or Fat Jon's work with Pole, the fusion of hip hop with electronic beats can often evoke bleak and sterile visions of our present day or future world. But with minimal orchestration being employed on songs like My Negativity Polyphonic shows that it's not simply bleeps and clicks here. As eery violin weaves its way throughout these fragile beats or My Patriotism's jaunty spanish guitar dances freely a massive wall of the most complex textural arrangement has risen up infront of you without you even noticing and to focus on it can be quite mind blowing.
The guest spots are used wisely with two Anticon heavyweights adding valuable verses. Buck 65 creeps in half way through La La Lala bringing a sense of nostalgia with his gruff delivery but sits perfectly with Serengeti's smooth rhyming. With the Bike For Three project such a success, Buck seems quite at home against Polyphonic's textures. Just as suited to this arena is Adam Drucker aka Dose One. As Dose's vocals emerge from the static on Steroids his usual delivery is so well disguised it's easy to miss the fact that it's him. Like a cloaked figure lurking in the shadows his voice morphs to the music like an ominous film-noir presence.
This record is tough going. It has a pretty stark outlook on the world we all inhabit but it sure is worth a listen. It takes all that hip hop was supposed to do and brings it fiercely into the present day. It also does exactly what this label was always supposed to do but in recent times has fallen somewhat short of the mark. Terradactyl is as forward thinking as any of the early Anticon releases and just drips quality from every expertly produced second.Read more 3.5 star reviews
More Heart Than Brains
More Heart Than Brains is a creation that has been steadily evolving for many years and across vast distances and comes to our ears now as a fully formed and glistening piece of work. Bike For Three! is the collaborative project of Belgian based electronic producer Joelle Phuong Minh Le (Greetings From Tuscan) and Canadian rapper Buck 65. It all began when Phuong Minh Le found Buck through his Myspace page about two years ago and then sent him a piece of music to write lyrics to. As he explained in a recent interview I did with him (coming soon), he was so taken with the quality of this first and fully formed piece of music she's given him saying "It was was extremely flattering to me that somebody would give me their absolute best best and would push themselves beyond anything they had done before." This first song inspired a blissfully productive series of creative exchanges with Phuong Minh Le delivering shimmering electronic landscapes, all fully formed and unpredictable in their direction, for Buck to weave his intricate lyrical musings. The result is a highly personal and tender opus and probably some of the best things this MC has delivered.
The two artists conducted this creative exchange for many years but have never met. This way of making a record could produce disjointed music with both artists working separately but actually More Heart Than Brains is the opposite. The obvious mutual respect that Terfry talks about is clearly what has driven these songs and what makes both elements merge perfectly. It has also driven each artist to rise to eachothers high standards. Phuong Minh Le's compositions are simply stunning. With an exquisite attention to detail she crafts elaborate vistas built around downtempo beats surrounded in bristling textures. They rarely end up where they start and even though she first approached Terfry the task of matching these compositions with lyrics must have been a daunting one indeed. But it's one that Terfry rises to with equal confidence.
Being presented with such pure and beautiful music has brought out some of the most personal and revealing lyrics he's ever penned. Phuong Minh Le's music stands in front of him like a mirror from which intimate reflections of love and life emanate with arresting honesty. Can Feel Love (Anymore) picks through the wreckage of a broken relationship and all the time Buck's chorus lyrics are shadowed by a subtle and effect laden female voice that only confounds the loneliness. This loneliness is seen again on Nightdriving where Buck's often seen persona as a loner in a strange land takes place in a city at night. The music here gleams like never before reflecting the light that bounces over nighttime urban surfaces. His flow is also severely challenged by this music. This is seen to dazzling effect on one of the albums many highlights There Is Only One Of Us. This song starts with a female intake of breath, as if about to speak. It continues on a steady beat with the lyrics ambling along but then rises on a wash of synths to finally drop into a drum and bass formation with little warning. Buck's tempo excellerates on cue and the whole thing just launches with thrilling pace.
Since 2005's Secret House Against The World it's been pretty tricky to predict what Buck 65's going to come out with next. The following Situation was a highly conceptual album that seemed to rely more heavily on hip hop beats, but it put him in a place that was hard to come back from artistically. This collaboration has proved a wise move for him, taking him out of his one-man-band comfort zone into unfamiliar and yet rich territory. As each artist raises their game, reacting spontaneously and honestly to the creativity of the other, More Heart Than Brains sounds almost like a live feed in an artistic bounce off. It's the sound of two individuals trading intimate thoughts over time and distance and you really can't help feeling honored to be allowed to listen in.Read more 4 star reviews
Monday 8th of June sees the release of veteran Anticon producer Odd Nosdam's new record T.I.M.E Soundtrack. T.I.M.E stands for This Is My Element - the title of the new Element Skateboards film - and Odd Nosdam composed each song to fit the skater it accompanies.
It's a rare thing indeed to have a whole skate film composed by one artist and Nosdam does a fine job. Featuring some heavyweights like Mike Vallely and Bam Margera, This Is My Element is beautifully shot and the soundtrack really raises some of the scenes to epic status. These two clips are from the young Nyjah Huston (above) and the legendary Chad Muska (below).
Chimpomatic review of T.I.M.E Soundtrack online here.
The veteran Anticon producer follows up 2007's Full length Level Live Wires with a collection of hip hop pieces soundtracking the Element Skateboards' film This Is My Element. Each song is tailored to fit the Element skater it accompanies and so is a slightly fractured piece of work but one that sees this beatsmith on strangely upbeat territory crafting some of the dopest beats we've every seen from him.
Famous for his work on cLOUDDEAD, Odd Nosdam is known for his droney-wash soundscapes that fit better into a sound-art category rather than hip hop. Level Live Wires did much to alter this image of him and with this as its followup we see an already awe inspiring producer evolving into something quite special.
The trademark touches are firmly in place here. His work with cLOUDDEAD was meticulously crafted and every sound was enshrouded in fuzz, haze and feedback. this is an altogether cleaner affair but the beats, whether crunching and ominous like on T.I.M.E In or delicate and floating as in Ethereal Slap, rarely travel alone and are muffled and textured with such care and attention that makes them endlessly listenable. Whereas the emphasis in the past has been on oppressive textures songs like We Bad Apples with its guitar-driven melody and the booming Trunk Bomb transform this record into an absolute stomper.
Not surprisingly these songs work best when experienced in the context in which they were created. Seeing the pop/grind/land sequence in Nyjah Huston's opening section of the Elements film happen to the deep beats of the blissful Top Rank is endlessly satisfying and when Jeremy Wray lands a ginormous ollie over some stairs right on the beak of We Bad Apples it is truly awesome. This hazy hip hop obviously doesn't suit Bam Margera's style of anarchy so an appropriately brutal piece of punk has to be drafted in for his section. Elements boast a pretty hefty line up and with people like Mike Vallely and Chad Muska in this film it can't really fail but I've never seen a skate film's soundtrack entirely composed by one producer and it really unites the film into a concise whole rather than the sum of its parts. T.I.M.E is an impressive work both on film and on record and marks the point where this producer turns a corner.Read more 3.5 star reviews
Born Like This
He may have dropped the 'MF' form his name but the metal face is most definitely back behind the mask with his first album in years. In his absence the expectation has grown to mammoth proportions. The Mouse And The Mask elevated his status to stellar and with its success Doom was primed for something huge. So he goes to ground. The last time he did this was after the demise of KMD and the death of his brother, emerging as the masked villain he is today. His emergence here is less drastic, but things have definitely changed.
There are of course the usual cartoon related samples peppering htis album but naming the album after Charles Bukowski's 'Dinosauria, We' and including a lengthy sample from the man himself shows a new seriousness breathing a cold breeze through the record. It's still as comic as ever but there is a renewed malevolence creeping in and Bukowski's input on Cellz sends an apocalyptic shiver down the middle of the album.
But for all the time underground this is not the album I expected to break the silence. His name is more focused and so is his rhymes. Born Like This is not a blasting trumpet heralding the return of the king, instead its power is almost unrecognised on first listen, but it soaks itself in slowly and after spending some quality time with this record it stands up as some of his best work since Madvillainy. Production duties are shared between Doom himself, Madlib and the awesome Jake One. There's some resurrected beats by Dilla including the much used Lightworks and a three year-old collaboration with Ghostface. But with all these heavyweights onboard Born Like This is very understated. Bass is used sparingly on the beats and Doom's rhymes plod methodically with deeper gravel tones than usual.
It's nothing new to see a Doom album scattered with short, sharp tracks and the result of this unifies the album into an entity that needs to be heard as a whole to be fully appreciated. The three standout cuts for me are the darkly booming Ballskin with its sinister melody; Rap Ambush which features an impressive boom/clap beat where Doom tells of an insurgent attack on enemy forces, sending wave after wave of R.P.G's - Rhyme Propelled Grenades; the other choice cut is That's That, a tight rhyme over a sweetly melancholic clarinet tune that also ends with some Doom singing which really shouldn't be allowed. It's not all good though, there's some pretty weak moments like the clumsy Supervillainz, the slightly weary Lightworks and the tiresome homophobic content on Batty-Boys, where the constant references to gay superheroes may well be clever but get boring quite quickly.
To come back after this long under the weight of so much expectation with an album as restrained and focused as this can only be applauded. Doom reestablishes himself as one of the most intelligently gifted MCs around and the downplayed nature of this record only serves to allow his fans space to marvel at the intricacies of each expertly dropped word.Read more 3.5 star reviews
Ahead of this summer's comeback album CrownsDown Themselves have dropped this 39 minute mixtape and it's free to download. If you cast your mind back to when Real Madrid ruled the football world with their dream team line up, this mixtape would be the hip hop equivalent. Featuring contributions from a host of Anticon dudes like Yoni Wolf, Sole and Pedestrian plus hip hop's alternative elite like Buck 65, Aesop Rock, Slug and Busdriver. The whole thing is also tied up in a nice little bow by Odd Nosdam who mixes it all.
But despite all the se names it's the two main players that drive this and make it a non stop bullet train of beats and rhymes. Jel's beats are heavy and come at you like a techno storm. They swirl into each other morphing and changing organically according to the MC that has stepped up. Dose One steals the show as expected with his lightning tongue flickering with lyrical brilliance. The way they have both progressed their other band Subtle is a major influence here as multi layered compositions are constructed. Programmed beats mix with regular old school as Dose's vocals shape shift from being mumbled backing texture to his twisted pixie rhymes that dart out of the texture as gleaming bullets. The mixtape format gives it a nice old school feel and each MC comes into play with great fluidity. Buck 65 gets a gloriously booming beat to play with, Aesop's deep delivery sits perfectly with Dose's high pitched voice and as Nosdam brings in Yoni Wolf the cLOUDDEAD circle becomes complete for the first time in too long and it sure feels good.
It's been ten years since this group first emerged and six since their last record and this generous 39 minutes of perfect prose is a fine return to form. Featuring the 7 original members of the Anticon collective it really sums up this labels history and their current standing as one of hip hop's finest labels. The fact that this is free makes it irrisistable, like I needed any other reason to hear these boys play again.
You can download the whole thing here (for the next
90 85 days only!) or pay out for a limited CD version that features an extra 16 minutes of audio.
Anticon heavyweights Jel and Doseone, aka Themselves, are planning a return after a six year gap with a new album CrownsDown set to drop this August. But to bridge the gap they're putting out a free online mixtape sometime this month. The FREEHoudini tape will feature guest spots from the likes of Aesop Rock, Why? Buck 65, Slug and Sole and will be the reunion of sorts for all three members of cLOUDDEAD. They leaked this 15 minute taster to Pitchfork last week and if this doesn't wet your backpack appetite you're probably dead.
It was a good year for Hip Hop with some real heavyweight contributions from the likes of Lil Wayne, The Roots and Kanye West. Q Tip came out of retirement with a great album and Atmosphere gave us the fantastic When Life Gives You Lemons Paint That Shit Gold. But ultimately these 5 rocked my world.
Why? - Alopecia
This record dropped pretty early this year but has remained a permanent fixture ever since. Building on the clever songcraft of Elephant Eyelash, Alopecia is almost too packed with ideas to fully comprehend.
Black Milk - Tronic
Just as the year draws to a close, Black Milk drops his best work yet: super tight production mixes with raw old school might to produce a hip hop classic.
The Roots - Rising Down
Thank God for George Bush or we may not have ever had a record as venomous and thoroughly pissed off as this. Leaning more on the classic hip hop than the live band, the Philly boys really delivered here although the guest MC's nearly stole the show.
The Cool Kids - The Bake Sale EP
From out of nowhere came this EP full of playful bravado and classic old school hooks. "The new black version of the Beastie Boys."
lil Wayne - Tha Carter III
The most anticipated hip hop record of the year actually made good on its promise.
The Roots - Rising Down (feat. Mos Def & Styles P)
Black Milk - Losing Out
Why? - By Torpedo Or Crohn's
Hercules & Love Affair - Blind
Lil Wayne - A Milli
The Mighty Underdogs
Sounded good on paper, especially with Def Jux behind them, but in reality was a pile of shit.
Subtle - Exiting Arm
It was their most commercial release and certainly promised great things. But somehow it lacked some of the quirky excitement of all of their previous work.
The X Factor
That duet between Beyonce and Alexandra...nuf said.
Sex And The City (Only because I went to the World Premiere and sat near SJP and Gary Lineker, it's the only way I see movies so was the only one I saw)
Black Milk's official debut Popular Demand dropped last year to critical acclaim across the board. The detroit MC and producer was hailed as the rightful air to J Dilla's crown. And through his next release The Set Up with fellow Detroit MC Fat Ray and this, his second solo album, he is more than living up to the praise that seems to follow him everywhere he goes. Tronic is not only the best collection of songs from Curtis Cross, but sneaks in as one of the hip hop records of the year.
The title may suggest that this record sees Cross embracing technology but it's a wonderful mix of earthy beats and futuristic production. You can tell all this from the first song. Long Story Short introduces itself with a gently tinkling piano then launches into the deepest old school break since KRS dropped Step Into A World. It's pounding beat is enshrouded in raw production and synth washes making the whole thing kind of awkward but loose. This is dramatically contrasted with the following track Bounce. Sounding like the backing tune from an 80's Michael Mann car chase Bounce simmers with a rolling synth melody and a gentle click-clap beat. It's as smooth as Long Story is raw so with only 2 tracks under you belt you're already wondering what the USP is on this record. But that's it's beauty, whereas a lot of hip hop records show their cards too early Cross' main objective is quality whichever form that may take.
The tinny funk break on Give The Drummer Sum continues this nod to the old school as a fabulous retro fanfare melody envelopes the whole thing. This is echoed on the soulful Try, full of intricately spliced samples around which Cross slots his effortless verse. Again, in contrast comes Hold It Down with it's deep booming synthesisers and The Matrix, a dark, brooding and deathlessly serious cut curtsy of DJ Premier and featuring some great guest appearances from Pharoahe Monch and Sean Price. It also features the awesome line "You couldn't hang if you were Ving Rhames in Rosewood." Then you've got Cross' rarely seen ability to drop a slice of hip hop so perfect it could storm any pop charts given half a chance. Losing Out is that tune and it's pure class, infinitely listenable, the dopest baseline and some lightning rapping from Cross himself and the mighty Royce Da 5'9. Each verse is spat with strength and power and the production is tight, yet free to evolve as the song progresses.
In short Tronic is solid, exciting, supremely impressive and takes this Detroit artist into new territory. His quality was always evident on his previous releases but Tronic showcases every facet of that quality and introduces some more. It's a powerhouse of a record.
Read more 4 star reviews
The Forum, Kentish Town, London
The legendary Roots crew brought a healthy dose of their Philly flare to a cold and wet winter's night in North London on Friday as they jammed with unfailing enthusiasm for about 2 hours. They brought with them a full live band and though I searched high and wide, no sign of any turntables. For these hip hop heavyweights it's no longer the platters that matter as ?uestlove engineers the beats from his lofty drum-kit mounted high on a plinth at the back. With his afro rising like a sun from behind his drum prison the man never stopped as both his unrelenting rhythmical structure and his physical presence formed the backbone of this incredible sound. And the reason it was incredible is that it redefined what a hip hop gig could be for me.
The show was by no means perfect and there were often times when my attention wandered but never once did it conform to a typical hip hop gig. Entering the stage first was a musician clad in a glorious tuba (later referred to as Tuba Gooding Junior) his deep, booming sound filling the venue. This introduction was mesmerizing and I was transfixed from the start as all the musicians took up their positions, keyboards, rhythm guitar, bass guitar, saxophone, percussion and drums all were in place and in struts Black Thought, baseball cap, sunglasses and phat gold chain. Taking his cue from ?uestlove who belts out the Apache rhythm that forms Phrenology's greatest cut Thought @ Work, the show commences in style. They frantically blend into Get Busy from the new album and it's not until this mayhem draws to a close that we are given time to breath.
With this live formation the band provide themselves with a lot of freedom, they're not constrained by programmed or sampled drum beats and so they are able to go where they please. They are able to tail off from one track into an impromptu rendition of Jungle Boogie led by the saxophonist, or let a song amble into a mammoth duel between ?uestlove's drum-kit and the percussionist's bongo dexterity. The other effect the live band has is the removal of the MC as the central focal point. Black Thought is way more central and way more impressive on record than he is on stage. This isn't really a critism of him, he's electrifying when on a flow, but is more of an observation about a front man that is quite willing to fade into the background and let his band take center stage. Sometimes he'd even fade off his rap mid-verse so that only he could hear his own words, like he was unaware of an audience.
They clearly love playing and seemed to never stop, flowing from one song to the next. The torrent of words flooding out over such a complex mixture of sounds does ask a lot of the audience and there definitely was a lull during the middle period, as this energy is hard to maintain. Black Thought's words were often enveloped by the music making it hard to hear him and with each song undergoing major changes it was hard to recognise some of them and many favorites passed me by unnoticed. Strangely enough, it was the musical interludes like the drum battle and the awesome bass guitar solo that thrilled me the most. They displayed the band's potential to turn on a knife edge and change up the genres altogether. And that was the principle success of the night. Black Thought's gold chain was the only conventional hip hop representative present that night. I didn't feel like I was at a hip hop gig and I was glad of it. People were moving to the back where there was more space to dance. As the whole show culminated in a rapturous and frenzied rendition of one of their biggest singles The Seed and every hand was thrust into the air I felt like I was in the presence of a truly legendary crew who were really writing their own rules and breaking them as well. The skill and creativity on that stage was palpable and a wonder to behold.Read more 3 star reviews
Droppin' Science Fiction
In the mid 90's and early 2000, whether going under the name Solesides or Quannum, this crew, consisting of members of Blackalicious, Latyrx and DJ Shadow, couldn't put a foot wrong and without resorting to mindless thug-rap they crafted their own brand of mindfull hip-hop that displayed an unrivaled lyrical dexterity and creativity. All their releases whether solo or collectively involved collaboration and together amassed to a group of artists forging their own way in this game and just getting stronger and stronger by the year. With the massive collaborative release Quannum Spectrum in 1999 and Blackalicious' NIA the following year they seemed to be reaching their creative peak and, in my opinion, have slowly shrunk from those heights ever since. Gift Of Gab's raps became far too conscious of their do-good nature, Lyrics Born's solo releases were almost too aesthetically pleasing and possessed little of the edge he previously exhibited and Lateef The Truth Speaker briefly shone in his Maroons project but then all but disappeared. DJ Shadow kept up his end for as long as he could but then even he had to fall and did so gloriously with The Outsider.
So that said, the thought of Gift Of Gab teaming up with Lateef again for this Mighty Underdogs project more than moistened my palette for a return to form and seeing that is was all taking place on the ever-reliable Def Jux label was further proof of an imminent comeback. Sadly this isn't the case and it really pains me to say that. My criticism of the last two Blackalicious albums, that they are far too riddled with preaching lyrics about spirituality and love, are not my criticisms here and some may argue that I am beng slightly and unfairly hard on the boys. I have been wanting them to toughen up for ages, to spit out the odd swear word and show they are human, so when they finally do, on tracks like Gunfight and Aye I cringe like my dad's trying to be cool. I don't know why but it all sounds slightly forced and fake.
Everything's in place here for a great record. Lateef's flow is as tight as it always used to be and Gab's dexterity and speed with which he delivers his lines is top notch. While not quite matching up to Quannum Spectrum's use of guests, heavyweights like MF Doom and Casual make a richer tapestry - not to mention the DJ Shadow produced UFC Remix. But the inclusion of Chari 2na, Jurassic 5's self proclaimed 'Lyrical Herman Munster,' on War Walk only highlights how this genre has moved on, leaving behind these MC's - whereas an artist like Doom seems as fresh now as he did over a decade ago. So after much agonising deliberation I deduce that the key thing missing on this record is a sense of relevance. Time, and indeed Hip Hop has moved on since their heyday and though there may well never be a couple of MCs quite like Lateef and Gab it's what they rap about here that makes them seem irrelevant. As the album title suggests it's definitely fiction that is being dropped here and their tendency to use obvious narrative concepts as the basis for many of the songs is what makes the record so awkward. Gunfight sees Lateef assume the character of a heat-packin' wild west cowboy, Ill Vacation is a jaunty little holiday song while Science Fiction is, guess what, all set in outer-space and seems to run over what sounds like the Man With Two Brains soundtrack. One of the most puzzling and cringing of these concept tracks is Aye where all the protagonists are lusting after a certain female of rather sluttish tendencies. Not only is the concept of these righteous MC's sniffing round some ho quite curious but it also reminds me of the Latyrx classic Lady Don't Tek No and I am instantly made aware of the gulf that exists between the two songs.
Hands In The Air keeps things simple and for that reason works well, no over-ambitious concepts, just the solid rhymes over simple beats and Laughing At You is a triumph for the same reasons: it stays simple. Victorious is a great way to end the record and one that comes from a retrospective angle as both MCs reflect on a triumphant career. This record is by no means bad but it's impossible to form a critique without comparing it to these guys' previous work and it's at this point that the record falls very short of the mark. This crew and all their affiliates defined an era of hip hop for me and their continued commitment to a different moral path to many artists of the genre has always been inspirational, so it pains me all the more to see them left behind. I am sure they all have a lot more to contribute but they really need to reassess what they're about before the next release.Read more 2.5 star reviews
White Van Music
Almost a quarter of the way through this record we, the listener, are encouraged to "steal money from your grandmother's brazier...or take it from the whore on the corner... and buy this fuckin record." While this site by no means condones such behavior a prompt acquisition of Jake One's debut is strongly advised.
Seatle's Jacob Dutton, aka Jake One, has contributed production to some of the most well known artists in hip hop today and also to some of the lesser. He may not be a household name like some of his contemporaries but the respect he commands from those in the know is such that an album as expansive and diverse as White Van Music can flow so coherently while featuring MCs as varied as it does. What makes White Van Music so enjoyable and so unique is that it pitches underground heroes like MF Doom alongside tried and tested chart-topping heavyweights like Busta Rhymes. Having done tracks for G-Unit's debut Beg For Mercy he is accustomed to laying down dark atmospherics for a more hardcore style so to have that flow alongside rappers like De La Soul's Posdnous is something rarely heard.
But this isn't just your regular who's who of hip hop comp. He may dazzle us with the guest list but when Jake One pairs people up on the same track it becomes something quite special. The earliest of these collaborations is The Truth, featuring the gritty delivery of Freeway which is contrasted perfectly by the free flow of Brother Ali. Both rappers represent different ends of the spectrum but their partnership is inspired. More suited is the duo of Posdnous and Atmosphere's Slug. As they weave in and out over the expertly crafted shuffle/clap beat their similarities become obvious. This can also be said for White Van which features the slow, intense styles of Alchemist, Evidence and a brief appearance by Prodigy. This audio curation is only possible if the brains behind it has a deep understanding of the artists he is working with and Jake One certainly does.
There is no overriding style that ties every song together here and on paper it shouldn't really be this good. An album as stylistically diverse as this isn't going to please everyone all the time and does feature some rappers that don't necessarily float my boat. Keak da Sneak provides a laborious cut on Soil Raps and Little Brother's moment on Bless The Child is less than inspiring with the beat severely outstaying its welcome. However these moments of bordom are few and far between, the rest is pretty solid. Besides the aforementioned collaborations the other highlights are I'm Coming, the album opener featuring Nottz and Black Milk, an artist who, for me, is going from strength to strength, the menacing Dead Wrong featuring Young Buck and both the MF Doom cuts. Trap Door and Get 'Er Done really show this producers versatility and his nack for matching the right beat to the artist. Doom's hulking delivery skulks over a suitably shuffling beat that might plod along as you'd expect but the glimmers of jazz high-hat rhythm provide the dense warmth that is needed to support the weight of the voice. So instead of setting your iPod to shuffle you may as well go see that whore with the necessary cash you need to buy this album and the job's done.Read more 3.5 star reviews
Slime And Reason
In the hip hop Olympics Roots Manuva has always been Team GB's only hope - and since his remarkable debut Brand New Second Hand in 1999 he has continued to produce brutally honest work that - while encompassing hip hop, dub, ragga and funk- manages to sound essentially British, but at the same time different from all other sounds that trickle from the UK hip hop scene. His 2001 follow-up Run Come Save Me saw Rodney Smith gain wider acclaim being nominated for a Mercury Music Prize and took the dark subtleties of BNSH and mixed them with a new found penchant for the 'pop hit'. Lead single Witness was voted greatest UK hip hop tune of all time by the readers of Hip Hop Connection. In 2005 came the the introspective Awfully Deep which, while receiving its dues in musical acclaim, was largely misunderstood by Smith's gathering throng of fans.
Thankfully Slime And Reason is unlikely to suffer the same injustice and is a dazzling return to form for our reluctant hero. Trying to narrow down this emcee's strengths is something of a challenge. He's done more than most for UK hip hop and yet his beats need only the slightest nudge to stray from their hip hop root. He can hit us with a crowd pleaser like Witness then retreat into the introspective shadows for the rest of the record. Despite his success his rhymes are laced with the insecurities of the common man and so as a result he's able to counteract his critical acclaim with the kitchen sink wit of a hip hop Morrissey. Slime And Reason incorporates all these contradictions and is a marvelous summation of his career so far. It plunges into the textured depths of Run Come Save Me while tapping the money-making hit machine of Witness to a fuller effect. The beats crunch with electro futurism and yet this album more than most draws on a sound of old.
The record seems to be divided into 2 halves and each half draws on a different source. The Jamaican record label Studio One provides the sonic source material with a grass roots dancehall flavor running through much of the first half of the record. This is where the carnival atmosphere is created and by track 7 we've been given more hands-in-the-air but shakers than on all his albums combined. Opener Again & Again is a ramshackle celebration of Smith's inspirational roots with its looped brass section sample bobbing to the swagger of the rhythm. Do Nah Bodda Mi is a stand out moment here and is almost certainly set for dance floor greatness this summer. Produced by dancehall maverick Toddla T, it's a no holds barred romp featuring lightning guest vocals and contrasted monotone Smith rhyming. Buff Nuff assumes a similar tempo and is as shameless as things are ever likely to get. Sadly this song suffers greatly under the shadow of the recent Flight Of The Conchords song Boom - and together with Smith's attempts to entice a female by offering her a lift on the handlebars of his push bike, this song is virtually impossible to take seriously.
The second half draws on his hip hop influences and is a lot less fun and with songs like It's Me Oh Lord it does tend to get bogged down in its seriousness. However, this contrast is what we love about this emcee. He really has a lot to say which, in this genre, can sometimes be a rare thing. We see his bare boned insecurities about success and money in 2 Much 2 Soon and the trials of a family man reduced to a "long streak of piss" nursing a "lethal concoction" in a local pub. Well Alright with its examination of Manuva's place in the music business and The Metronomy produced Let The Spirit are two of the best and most worthwhile tracks on here and will be the songs that take this record back to the greatness of the debut.
The album begins with Again & Again's line "A lot of people don't know about Smith, how I came to the scene and came to uplift" and ends with the subdued The Struggle. With bookends like this its easy and yet curious to see Smith's sense of vulnerability in this life and this business. He's been a household name in hip hop circles across the world for some time now and this fourth installment can only project him more into people's consciousness. But his charm and lasting appeal may well reside in the fact that no matter how big this album gets it will always be a case of "The struggle continues on".Read more 3.5 star reviews
The Bake Sale EP
Here we have 2 teenagers from Chicago rocking fly gold chains and cheap NWA type sports hats, who assume a pastiche of a bygone era of 80's hip hop so brazenly that you'll question why you love it so much, but love it you will. Mikey Rocks and Chuck Inglish give us their debut release The Bake Sale EP, a ten track collection of stripped down, minimal beats that form the sturdy foundation for their well crafted rhymes that cover girls, bikes and breakfast cereal and all that lies in between. The english language is expertly broken down into a series of syllables that are piled on top of one another like kids building blocks. The simplicity of their delivery and subject matter disguise their complex arrangements forcing multiple plays and before you know it this EP will be under your skin.
Opener What Up Man opts for the spoken beat with rhythm being formed of the words tick, tick, clap, tick, tick, bass. It's like a DIY, Ikea flat-pack song that unfolds and dazzles with its blatant simplicity. Lead single 88 taps the retro vein with shameless confidence as does Gold And A Pager which takes its lead lyric from Ice Cubes NWA line "Fuckin' with me cause I'm a teenager, with a little bit of gold and a pager." With the deep clap beats this tune is methodical and clinical in its delivery but while assuming this plodding pace you can really take your time to marvel at the complexity of this groups writing. Bassment Party takes its influence from a Miami Bass rhythm and picks up the pace perfectly but still refrains from over complicating things.
"We're the new black version of the Beastie Boys," claim this band and that group's album Paul's Boutique is certainly brought to mind here. This ain't rocket science, it's clever, but humble about it - which makes for a dazzlingly simple album that while nodding blatantly to the past comes across as effortlessly now. Hip hop bands that take their influence from the old school tread a perilous road that soon runs out of steam. We all love the old school but it evolved for a reason and the Cool Kids inject enough of their own contemporary ideas into their sound to separate their fate from the likes of Jurassic 5. The Bake Sale is a refreshing debut indeed and one that will surely be on this reviewer's top 5 list come Christmas.Read more 3.5 star reviews
Tha Carter III
Hailed as the "most anticipated release of 2007", Lil Wayne's first full album since Tha Carter II in 2005 saw such an unprecedented leak rate that it got pushed back for a 2008 release and has since sold more than a million copies in it's first week. All this acclaim and expectation could spell the demise of a hip hop act such as Wayne but Tha Carter III is a piece of work that more than lives up to its hype and sees this truly unique MC occupying even weirder and bolder territory than ever.
On one of the stand out tracks, Dr. Carter, Wayne assumes the role of doctor and the patient is hip hop. Various symptoms present themselves at the start like lack of confidence, bad concepts, weak flow and no style and by the end he claims to have "saved hip hop." This arrogance is justified as he takes us step by step through just why he is more than qualified to be the self proclaimed saviour. And hip hop has never sounded healthier than on Carter III.
With his grizzly delivery and slow, erratic flow Lil Wayne fills every album with an overflowing quantity of ideas. He has experimented so much with his voice and can swing from a deep menacing growl (Phone Home) to weazle-like ragga-monotone rapid fire (A Milli). Each track demonstrates his lyrical prowess as he changes subject faster than a cornered politician. The production is tight with multi layered beats and deep soulful melodies. There is some great samples, most notably the David Axelrod melody on Dr. Carter and Nina Simone on the overlong Don't Get It. Wayne seems so at ease with the music, as he takes his time delivering vivid metaphors it's as if the beats have to keep up with him. Let The Beat Build demonstrates hip hop's unique freedom to allow songs that are about nothing but hip hop itself. The song is centered around Wayne's grasp of beat timing and that's about it, but it works tremendously. Mid-way through the song everything goes quiet until Wayne whispers, "As I hit the kill switch / Now that's how you let the beat build bitch." Songs like Shoot Me Down show the MC soul-searching with dark, brooding atmospherics that build to his end statement "watch me soar, where the fuck is my guitar?" and a screeching chord brings the whole thing to a close. It's followed by it's antithesis, Lollipop. The first official single, this is a made-for-radio song that is centered round a shameless confectionary-based sexual innuendo. It's good but it's nothing 50 Cent didn't already tell us in Candy Shop.
Lollipop, while a solid tune, does contain elements of where this album, for me, strays from its focus and that'll be in its R n B tendencies. I rarely venture into mainstream hip hop such as this, for this very reason. Hip hop is the biggest selling genre in the US and can't do too bad over here either, but I can't help feeling that this statistic comes about largely due to the genre boundaries being heavily blurred and when hip hop strays into RnB territory the market expands. R Kelly isn't hip hop and Kanye West isn't RnB. Songs like Got Money and Comfortable seem to dilute this MC's dazzling writing skills not to mention Mrs Officer, a song who's principle theme is a female cop sexual fantasy.
So that's the bitching out the way and now down to business. This guy can turn a phrase better than most and that's the sole reason to listen to this album. Unlike many of his contemporaries Wayne doesn't lace every rhyme with the same concepts and themes and so in that respect he is hard to pin down. He isn't a thug rapper, a smut rapper or an indie-poet, he's all that and more. He covers many topics with impressive eloquence. Here's a few.
Excretion: You're like a bitch with no ass, you aint got shit. (A Milli)
Grammar: "I don't owe you like two vowels." (A Milli)
Will Smith movies: "I got so many bitches like I was Mike Lowry."(A Milli)
Ailments: "I Got Swagger tighter than a yeast infection" (Dr Carter)
Cooking: "Don't I treat you like soufflé?" ( Comfortable)
Confectionary: "So I let her lick the (w)rapper" - (Lollipop)
French: "I'm all about oui like Paris / Hilton presidential suite already." (La La)
Finance: "You better pay me cos you don't want my problems / I'll be wiling like Capital One, what is in your wallet" (You Aint Got Nuthin.)Read more 3.5 star reviews
"Better dead bolt the door, it aint safe no more" raps Black Thought on this, the tenth LP from the Phily heavyweights, and he's clearly referring to the new world we now find our selves inhabiting but his words could easily be seen as a warning cry to all other crews because Rising Down will demolish the competition. It's a foreboding record that tells of a growing unrest in America but does it with intelligent vision that, instead of sounding preaching, gathers us all behind it and commences its march on the system. The Roots have tirelessly crafted intelligent hip hop but this record manages to steer clear of the overly serious work that crops up in this genre. Rising Down is serious as fuck but it seems necessary, sincere and dangerously capable of making a difference. In mainstream hip hop there seems to be a limited number of routes out of the mothership. There's the dick-swinging/thugged out route favored by the likes of Fiddy, the "I shop so much I can speak Italian" bling rhymes of Kanye or the well trodden and yet important route of the political, championed by Chuck and the boys. The Roots have never really made their choice, choosing to keep their options open, so Rising Down sees them take a step nearer their choice. With some expertly employed guest vocals from the likes of Mos Def, P.O.R.N., Talib Kweli and Common each song plays out like a cross section of deep civil unrest. But aside from the guests this and every Roots album is about Black Thought. His relentless delivery adds the weight to this sound and as he flows over ?uestlove's flawless percussion you really want to listen.
Mos Def is given the mighty honor to open this record and he does so with style over a deep drum beat that simmers to a guitar sample that Shadow just wishes he made. Black Thought backs him up with his signature intensity "Everything's for sale, even souls, someone get God on the phone," sounds the chorus before Styles P flows off the back of Black Thoughts vocals perfectly. As an opener this song establishes the tone quickly. The guest vocals provide a varied platform for its darkly twilight drizzle and it has to be a strong contender for the best song this group has made. Get Busy storms in with raw drum beats and Black Thought's angry growls stabbing from the depths while 75 Bars (Black's Reconstruction) sees his lightning tongue rattle off lyrics like a gatling gun. Besides the intro these first three full songs come as a set and lead you deep into the heart of the record before you have time to worry if it's any good or not. They're the united front and they're impenetrably solid.
The two elements that make this record shine is its use of guest rappers and The Roots penchant for live instrumentation. Hip hop's been around for a while and you'd think by now that any keen follower would have heard his fair share of dope beats but with every release - and particularly this one - The Roots manage to craft such well rounded head-nodding perfection. I Will Not Apologize unites both these strengths and sees P.O.R.N. and Dice Raw rhyme over the sickest, most sleezy beat that bumps lightly around their perfectly crafted flows. It's like a mission statement read out on a relentless protest march with the guest's awkward style of flow complementing brilliantly that of Black Thought's. Criminal and Singing Man take a smoother approach but the effect is the same, accompanied by a more melodic structure they turn down the heat but continue to pile on layer after layer of simmering anger most frighteningly seen on Singing Man where Truck North assumes the role of a suicide bomber.
With the help of Wale and Chrisette Michele the penultimate track Rising Up seems to be the after party for those who stayed behind after the protest. It's a clever antidote to opener Rising Down and features such rhyme nuggets as Wale's "good rappers aint eatin', they Olsen twinnin'." Had it finished the album Rising Up would leave the listener with a profound sense of optimism for the future and the possibility of change. As it happens the upbeat Birthday Girl closes things and serves as the only misplaced step on this otherwise flawless record. The political route has often been on their map but The Roots have never strived to be Public Enemy often leaning heavily on a more soul-infused sound that provides their records with a rich variety of intensity and light relief. Rising Down opts for this variety a lot less than its predecessors and so the inclusion of the jaunty sing-along closer really dilutes their message here, thinning out the album. But like a fine wine this album, though tapering out at the edges, provides serious body throughout.Read more 4 star reviews
Leake Street, London
This cleverly named exhibition shows how far street art has come in the last ten years. Anyone who's lived in or around London for any length of time will be so used to seeing Banksy's creations come and go around town and with the exhibitions in America making front page headlines and his work being sold to countless celebrities, so it was no surprise that when I turned up to this Bank Holiday festival of stencil art curated by and including the 'man' himself the queue was round the block.
In case you don't know, this all takes place on Leake street, a tunnel under the old Eurostar at Waterloo station and it contains stencil paintings and sculptures by various street artists including Banksy. Anyone can contribute to this show throughout the weekend but it is strictly limited to stencil art only. There's a reception made out of an old caravan that artists have to register at where they will then be guided to the remaining free space on which to leave their mark. The result is a visual feast and a fantastically concentrated platform for this art. It seemed strange to be queuing for a highly organised exhibition of anarchic art, especially under a towering billboard that reads 'Gentrify This' but once you've made it through you'll find it was worth the wait.
You're not allowed to paint over anyone else's work so everything is tastefully placed but the quality is impressive. Dotted around burnt out cars, painted sofas and ice cream vans are thousands of images that all seem to behave perfectly with each other. The whole tunnel is totally covered with work and doused in dripping paint and if you can get a glimpse through the wall of flashing cameras you'll be glad you came. Every manner of culture has been thoroughly trashed from Michaelangelo's David, The Queen, Andy Warhol, our beloved hoodies and our (apparently) equally beloved Boris.
It's all very exciting and very hard to find a bad word to say about such an event being staged for free at a location as tourist-friendly as this. Banksy never seems to run out of good ideas these days and even though it's way more interesting to come across one of his visual one-liners on some dingy back ally in Hackney, to see some of these works on the scale that they are shown here is great. To be honest, I'm a bit bored of this stuff. It's so commonplace now and never seems to rise above its obvious, anti-establisment message but as an event in the capital I take my hood off to them. If this was Ken's swan song then thanks for the memories dude.Read more 4 star reviews
Returning from the recent staff snowboard trip I stopped off at San Francisco's Amoeba Records and picked up my copy of Why?'s Alopecia. It seemed a fitting place to purchase this Bay Area artist and so with that and a few other missing pieces to the Anticon puzzle I embarked on the 10 hour return journey to London. Maybe it was the severe lack of sleep, or the numerous injuries that plagued my aged body - but on returning home I was all set to hit the Chimp office with a rather disappointing review of this record. After the few disjointed play-throughs on the plane, this follow up to 2005's delightful Elephant Eyelash lacked it's predecessors energy and edge. It seemed to be a pale and overproduced shadow of the work achieved by Yoni Wolf in the past.
So having started this relationship on the sunny Californian shores it took a prolonged 2 hour traffic jam on a rainy Thursday night on the A3 for the love affair to begin. Anticipating a half-hour journey, this was the only CD on my person and after about 4 back-to-back plays this record stared me square in the face with astonishing honesty and made me ashamed of the thoughts I had formed in my pitiful mind. Yoni Wolf's transformation from lo-fi, underground hip-hop to melodic indie-pop seemed to be near completion on the recent Hollows EP and I guess my initial disappointment was wrapped up in that fact. I have always been in favor of this transformation as throughout Wolf's work with either cLOUDDEAD or Reaching Quiet his gift for a melody was always there but under used and during the first half of Alopecia it is heavily exploited.
Alopecia is made up of two halves and most of the deal makers occur in the latter part of the record. From the outset it's obvious that the production has never been slicker. Wolf has always been the figurehead of a lo-fi, homemade sound but things have changed. The Vowels Pt. 2 kicks off proceedings with short, plodding steps and it's clear this hike in production quality is being put to good use. This shiny, crystal clear melody loosely glosses over the dark themes that run through this record. Sex and death is pretty much it, making Alopecia far more twisted than its predecessor. Lines like "faking suicide for applause in the food court of malls" are the norm here not to mention, "sucking dick for drink tickets and the free bar of my cousins Bar Mitzvah." Death usually relates to Yoni's own demise and is always delivered in rosy, tongue-in-cheek candy wrappers. Fatalist Palmistry begins "I sleep on my back cos it's good for the spine and coffin rehearsal.
Wolf's vocal range is what makes his work so listenable. He can go from the low, shuffling rap of Good Friday to the nasal melody of These New Presidents and his writing is so surreal, bustling with imagery and so meticulously pronounced that your ear is forced to attempt to decipher each verse but rarely succeeds . On the unnerving Simeon's Dilemma Wolf assumes the role of a stalker and describes his obsession with a certain female by way of high pitched singing tones which makes the content even more cringeworhty.
As heard on the recent EP, The Hollows carries the weight here with a rarely heard increase in volume by means of grinding guitars and crescendo vocals. The Fall Of Mr. Fifths marks the turning point of the record. It's way more in line with Wolf's earlier Anticon work with rapid delivered spoken verse and surrounded by textural atmosphere. A Sky For Shoeing Horses Under continues the spoken verse with rain-drop-like keyboards trickling down around it, it's a simple and all too short piece of work but emerges as one of the finest moments on the record. The other comes in the form of By Torpedo Or Crohn's. This was the other stand out track on the EP with a remix by Dntel, but this version is slower and allows much needed room to truly appreciate Wolf's art.
It's an art that is second to none and the distance this band have come is astonishing. Though darker in tone Alopecia is a definite progression from the airy Elephant Eyelash. Its another step to the honing of their direction and it's quite rare to see a band with direction these days. Wolf crams so many ideas into every breath of this record that it will take a lifetime to uncover it all. The shame I feel at my early judgement now serves as a reminder of the depth and complexity of this album, to not like it is to not get it i'm afraid.Read more 4 star reviews
You Don't Know
Throughout Ninja Tunes 18 year history the Ninja Cuts compilation has been a landmark event in itself. The label has always prided itself on its varied array of artists working in more styles than is healthy which inevitably made a compilation that was both challenging and riveting. But where other Ninja Cuts have served to showcase the labels past releases this, the 5th in the series, has a far greater agenda. Aptly titled You Don't Know it aims to alter your preconceptions of what you think you know about this label, and it does this with ease. The main reason for this is that they now have 2 other labels operating under the Ninja umbrella and all are featured on this 3 CD compilation. Big Dada and the newest addition to the family, Counter, both radically side step the Ninja norm and when put together for the first time on one compilation the result is baffling. Long term Ninja institutions like Mr. Scruff, Bonobo and Coldcut sit alongside their Big Dada counterparts like Roots Manuva and Mike Ladd. Then if you chuck in new label Counter's poster-boy Pop Levi you really do start to question just what exactly is the Ninja sound.
But it's not just this amalgamation of labels that mixes things up here. This is not just any old best-of compilation, it showcases artists and releases from the past but rarely in their original form. Most songs are rare or unreleased or feature special edition remixes by artists such as Modeselektor, Tiga and Susumu Yakota. There are some live recordings from Cimematic Orchestra and inter-Ninja collaborations between Mr. Scruff and Quantic. If you're a dedicated follower of this label then this approach gives this compilation more importance and relevance but it can, at times, make for difficult listening. Not only has the tracklist been treated to a brutal visit to the blender but within each song there is radical alterations and mix ups.
There is so much going on here that it's hard to know where to start. There's a definite agenda running through each CD but it's so expertly disguised it reveals itself as more of a feeling than any coherent theme. CD 1 features what you would vaguely call the core components of the original label. Mr Scruff, Amon Tobin and The Herbaliser all feature but the highlight has to be The Cinematic Orchestra's To Build A Home. It's a treat on their new album and it's epic grandure really lifts this first CD. It's beauty is highlighted when taken out of the context of a concept album and put amongst the strange folk that surround it here.
CD 2 keeps things pretty regular with smooth cuts from Blockhead, Bonobo and RJD2. Kid Koala puts in an awesome guitar cut and paste extravaganza while Homelife's Seedpod makes a well earned return. We also get a remix of Coldcut's classic Atomic Moog. CD 3 really takes things up a notch and it's here where the 'You Don't Know' title really explains itself. Kicking off with Manuvadelics manic version of Roots Manuva's Chin High we're soon into nose bleed territory with The Qemist's drum and bass belter Drop Audio. We get guided through the more avant-guard vision of Big Dada with cLOUDDEAD and Mike Ladd and DJ Shadow puts in a rare and exceptional performance with the fantastic sample heavy Bring Madlib Up. The CD ends with a curios change up of beats with the house infused remix of Coldcut's Walk A Mile In My Shoes courtesy of Tiga and Switch's remix of Pest's Pat Pong.
Though all this really does convince the listener that we don't know it sometimes makes for an incoherent listen. Showing us that there is so much about this label that we don't know can also show us that there's a whole side to it that we don't want to know. Putting up old favorites then remixing the shit out of them can be a bit of a turn off but overall screams of bravery and the willingness to progress that has kept this label on top for so long. It's artists like John Mathias and Pop Levi that make this compilation interesting. They successfully remove it from the Ninja sound we have known for years and stop this sound from becoming a cliché of itself. They sometimes make the old sound, from the likes of Mr.Scruff, sound really dated and show that had this label not moved on with its own ethos and expanded its view with Big Dada and Counter then there really would be no need for it today. In the run of Ninja Cuts compilations this one is by far the most forward thinking and far reaching. It may not be as comfortable a listen as the previous ones but that's clearly not their intention. We may hit the skip button occasionally but we must eventually salute the direction of this label.Read more 3 star reviews
Recently I was having Quite an animated conversation with a Quality journalist friend of mine who writes for a Quintessential music magasine, the name of which I shall not Quote. When I asked him what he was listening to at the moment he sighed and told me of his disillusionment with the current music scene and said he only listens to old stuff now. His point was that no one makes complete albums anymore, they just make collections of singles. "Quite the opposite" I replied but then struggled to think of any examples to back me up. Well now I have one and if you're reading my friend, you may Quote me on that.
"My Dad said I was an afterparty baby; this goes out to all the accidents out there; keep on making mistakes." And so goes the dedication featured on Do I Miss My Friends, the opening track on this followup to Cadence Weapon's critically acclaimed debut Breaking Kayfabe. " I wanted to make music that afterparty babies were created to," explains Cadence Weapon aka Rollie Pemberton. Acting as a testament to Rollie's first influence, his father, Teddy Pemberton, creator of the Black Sound Experience Radio show and introducer of hip-hop to Rollie's hometown of Edmonton, Alberta, Afterparty Babies is a hectic journey through the world of club nights and house parties. This theme is explored through stories of friends, crews, nightmare DJ nights, hometowns, heroes, media and fashion.
Musically this is quite different from its predecessor. Where Breaking Kayfabe led with swirling, back-breaking electronic hip hop this one opts for a more electro/techno pace that serves to remove this artist from the hip hop roots that he may have once planted. Having seen him slot in a Joy Division cover at his London warm-up show last year, it's no surprise this album has moved on considerably from the debut and is the product of an artist open to a healthy array of musical influences. Pemberton presents an interesting juxtaposition between this thoughtful 'Wonder Years' style reminiscing and the harsh electro sound clash that carries it.
In my review of Breaking Kayfabe I was compelled to compare Cadence Weapon to a rampaging Terminator hell bent on destruction. It was a tenuous link I admit and made partly out of boredom of review-writing and also because 30 Seconds had a chorus that sounded a bit like The Terminator chase music. So I can't help feeling a sense of irony when mid-way through Afterparty Babies the song Messages Matter features a sample from Kindergarten Cop. " Who is your Daddy and what does he do?" comes the line and with it some interesting questions. Is Afterparty Babies the Kindergarten Cop to Breaking Kayfabe's Terminator? Are we seeing the human side of the cyborg? In a sense yes. It's not as hard hitting or relentless as the debut, it definitely has a lighter feel to it, it's more enjoyable and while you're jumping along to the uncharacteristically housey beats you know he's undercover and at the start of the movie you saw him kick someone's ass.
This may differ from the debut in all the ways mentioned earlier, it may be more melodic, spacious and palatable but let it run its course and you'll see it's just as tough as Breaking Kayfabe. It plays out like a night out clubbing but in reverse. It starts off strangely downtempo with Do I Miss My Friends? and by the end it's full on techno. There's no wind down, no gentle walk home with a kebab, it leaves you at top tempo to find your own way out. At the live show songs like In Search Of The Youth Crew and Real Estate were instant crowd pleasers and they don't disappoint here but instead become repetitive anthemic chants to Pemberton's Afterparty generation. True Story and Getting Dumb are electro master-classes, chucking in vintage house techniques with cuts and scratches and all topped by the most intricately crafted rhymes. It's certainly an album of 2 halves with the final few tracks providing the weight to this extraordinary record. Pemberton exited the stage at the Amersham Arms to House Music. It had the crowd jumping like a bunch of idiots and it has the same effect here. It's a dirty, crazy five and a half minutes. It swirls and bleeps to clapping beats and air-raid style sirens and it rules. By the time we get to the album closer We Move Away the techno conversion is complete. The club is in full swing and after a while the music even overtakes the creator and rises to a life of its own ending the album in almost 2 minutes of banging beats and grinding synths that threaten to go on until first light.
This has the feel of an album released by a well established hip-hop name that suddenly breaks from tradition and goes out on a limb, thus alienating hardened fans. It's exciting to see an artist do this so early and I can't imagine Cadence Weapon ever settling into a style. With this album he joins the ranks of MC's like Aesop Rock and Buck 65 as creators of their own style of hip-hop, constantly evolving and gathering up every influence and experience in their path. I am already eager to hear what this guy's got up his sleeve next and I bet I can find a Schwarzenegger link in it somewhere.Read more 4 star reviews
The Hollows EP
After the triumph that was 2005's Elephant Eyelash, Yoni Wolf emerges with a sneaky EP to wet our appetites ahead of next years Alopecia. The Hollows EP is basically a a collection of remixes and covers by the likes of Boards Of Canada, Xiu Xiu, Dntel, Half Handed Cloud and members of Yo La Tengo.
The title track is the only new song on this record and it seems to be finishing off Why?'s gradual transformation from his hip hop associations to the indie rock sound this band have been gravitating towards for some time. Why?'s hip hop links have always been tenuous due to Wolf's sing song rap style and his work with the Anticon collective has been the perfect environment to expand on this. The Hollows is an awesome taster for things to come with Wolf's vocals emerging front and centre and the rock influence moving into full effect.
Strangely enough there's two remixes here of forthcoming tracks of the Alopecia album. Boards Of Canada's remix of Good Friday is a stripped down, head nodding reconstruction that levels out the background to give Wolf's voice the intimate closeness it deserves while Dntel's re-imagining of By Torpedo Or Crohn's provides Wolf's more hip hop delivery with a soft techno lift off. Elephant Eyelash's Yoyo Bye Bye is a popular choice with versions by Xiu Xiu and Dump (James McNew of Yo La Tengo) and the whole thing ends with Islands' Nick T's cover of Wolf's previous Anticon project Reaching Quiet.
The upshot of this EP is that Why?'s 'anything goes' policy has obviously inspired this fine collection of artists to stretch their wings and together they've created material that is as good if not better than any of their own work. Having heard the remixes I'm pretty confident that next March will see the release of one of the albums of the year.Read more 4 star reviews
It's been a good year for Hip Hop I'd say. The head to head of two heavyweights, Kanye West and 50 Cent, was entertaining. Fiddy claimed he'd retire if West's Graduation topped his. Seeing as it smashed the pants off Curtis, keep an eye out in a charity shop near you for 50 doing volunteer work. The Beastie Boys released a curious instrumental album, but rocked Brixton like it was 1987, then just as you thought the year was over the mighty Wu-Tang do a Spice Girls and reform with awesome results. As usual though it was the underground scene (if there still is one) that really inspired.
Aesop Rock - None Shall Pass
Probably his most approachable yet, but uncompromising none the less. Album of the year.
Wu-Tang Clan - 8 Diagrams
Six years since 36 Chambers and the Clan return with a deeper, darker and superior slice of Wu wizardry.
Sage Francis - Human The Death Dance
Not quite as dazzling as some of his other work but Sage continues to pull away from the crowd of wack MC's in his wake.
Busdriver - Roadkillovercoat
This will piss off a few hardcore fans but Busdriver's slight step away from the relentless word assault has created some of his best moments here.
El-P - I'll Sleep When You're Dead
A worthy follow up to Fantastic Damage, fast, furious and relentless.
Aesop Rock - Coffee
Jay-Z - Hello Brooklyn
Wu-Tang Clan - Unpredictable
Timbaland - Oh Timbaland
Sage Francis - Hell Of A Year
Beastie Boys - Brixton Academy
El-P - Dingwalls
Cadence Weapon - Amersham Arms
Six years on and one Dirty Bastard down and the Clan are back. 8 Diagrams, Wu-Tang Clan's 5th studio album was long in the making and comes with the expected dose of controversy and talking points you'd imagine from this group. Leading up to the release of 8 Diagrams Raekwon stirred things up with a much publicised interview where he openly critisised producer RZA for the direction he was taking the group and accused him of being a "hip-hop hippie." Then like a bunch of bickering little girls Ghostface Killah weighed in protesting the timing of the record which was due to be released at the same time as his own The Big Doe Rehab. It's clear from the first listen of this record that Raekwon and Ghostface Killah don't know shit. RZA might have taken the Wu sound in a more subtle direction but in doing so he's created one of the hip-hop albums of the year.
Since their first release Enter The Wu (36 Chambers) way back in 1993, The Wu Tang Clan quickly established their own unique sound and all the many solo projects that followed have only served to elaborate on this. RZA, with his fingers in many pies would never have been content to continue this progression so despite the twittering of a few back-benchers he's rejected the hard-hitting beats of old and painstakingly crafted a record dripping in mood. It's a dark, reflective and densely produced piece of work that uses strings, guitar, live instrumentation and more soul vocals than ever before. It has no clear single and will alienate many die hard Wu fans but RZA's new, introvert style of sound provides richer pastures for his band of merry MC's.
Campfire kicks things off with a beat that oozes through your speakers like molasses, while Get Them Out The Way Pa is smoother than any Wu sound you've heard. This easing off the heavy beat pedal doesn't soften the impact that this group have been keen to cultivate but lets it sink in slower and more profoundly than before. The thick, plodding beats and rich instrumentation shifts the emphasis away from violence to menace and fear. So when the big guns do come out they are sharper than ever. Rushing Elephants and Unpredictable are the proud figureheads of this record and inject a sense of urgency with their apocalyptic beats and epic heist-movie horns. The production goes from minimal to claustrophobically complex and the MC's raise the tempo with furious spitting. Unfortunately this tempo is not maintained and throughout the middle section you start to think that maybe RZA's critics had a point. The beats start to go from brooding to just plain soft and the focus on melody and singing comes dangerously close to diluting the Wu ethos. Gun Will Go embodies this perfectly - it counts itself in with a rhythm that promises greatness then is smoothed over with soft melody and the`tantalisingly old school snare simply fades away.
Thankfully, RZA is anything but self indulgent and always has a plan. He cleverly manages to steer his crew out of this slow patch and they emerge triumphant, in fact he starts by going solo over a slow jazz background in Sunshine then continues to bring this album back to the dark side with steady cuts like Weak Spot and and Tar Pit. The late O.D.B's presence is definitely felt on this record with the tribute song Life Changes and the closing track 16th Chamber.
8 Diagrams is certainly not what you'd expect from a group such as this after a 6 year absence but who needs another thugged-out beat-fest? These guys created this genre so who better to lead us out of it into a new dawn? Thankfully this is no sunrise and the gloom still hangs heavy over Clan territory. 8 Diagrams might not be as head on as albums like 36 Chambers, but it's weight will eventually seep through and it will, in time, emerge as one of the hip-hop albums of 2007.Read more 4 star reviews
Sole and the Skyrider Band
Like a man coming up for air Sole's 4th album sees him spout an overwhelming torrent of words that have been kept quiet for so long. After his recent Mansbestfriend project where he managed to hold his tongue in favour of delicately crafted electronica the Anticon founder has gone and got himself a band and with their help he delivers an uncompromising piece of work and as a follow up to Poly.Sci.187 - released earlier this year - it proves there really is nothing this artist can't do.
This album is similar in intensity to records like 2003's Selling Live Water but The Skyrider Band provide valuable warmth with the live instrumentation. The beats are still fierce but don't crowd the ever flowing lyrical machine-gun like delivery. Sole's work is never less than impressive but can sometimes be way to suffocating as the layers of sound are piled to a dangerous height. This is addressed to a certain extent here and the result is a more spacious and textural record. But I wouldn't want to mislead you by implying that this is in any way an easy ride. Sole's rhymes take deep breaths and bore their way into your skull with a relentless perseverance, he has zero sense of humor whether he spits over slow, plodding beats like One Egg Short Of The Omelette or frantic, stuttering glitch as on The Bones Of My Pets he means to burrow deep and he seems to do it all with a single breath.
By enlisting the help of The Skyrider Band, Sole is taking his sound to new and richer pastures. This is an intelligent piece of work that has thought of every detail. His relentless tone can sometimes prove hard going but with the addition of such varied music behind him there is much meat on the bones of this newly resurrected Sole.
Well now I'm confused. With 2003's seminal Talkin' Honky Blues Buck 65 kept one eye in the rear view mirror of hip hop and the other trained way ahead into a land only he knew about. This departure from his roots was reinforced on Secret House Against The World but for different reasons. On both albums he was infusing his rhyme style with heart wrenching folk fables and personal observations that rocketed him way beyond the grasp of hip hop. So now, with what I think is his 11th album, he seems to have come back home.
This statement is neither completely true nor a terrible thing but more a curious shift from the course he seemed to be heading. Situation is a concept album of sorts and this just adds to my confusion. The record is based around the many defining events of 1957, a date that Buck claims was the start of underground and independent culture and that 50 years on we are on the cusp of a similar renaissance. This in itself is an interesting concept but with his last 2 albums Buck seemed to be an artist that was leading the way in this renaissance but with this return to hip hop appears to be a safe step backwards. I know that the whole album is a glance back over the last 50 years but in following that concept so closely Situation can, at times sound like my dad complaining that things weren't like that in his day.
But I wouldn't want to labour the negative too much as this is still a great listen. The return to hip hop means Buck's trademark one-man-band scratches and cuts are faster than ever and the beats heavy and rapid. The homemade sound has been buffed up and the production is tight. Thematically, Situation sheds the autobiographical approach in favour of a more fictional storytelling. In many of the songs Buck vividly creates a myriad of strange characters that, in all their many guises, inhabit the dark and seedy world of 1957. Shutter Buggin' sees him as a sleazy and reluctant pornographer who's just in it for the cash while his vice-squad cop in Spread 'Em deals with the same low-life but from the other side.
Songs like Ho-Boys and The Beatific hark back to the Buck of recent past with their delicate piano melody and understated beats. His rhymes are masked in the regular abstract imagery here and fit better with his gruff delivery. This can be said for many of the songs throughout the second half of this record. It seems to settle into itself and not feel the need to hammer home the concept. These songs have more longevity due to their reluctance to give it all up at once. With Mr Nobody and the beautiful The Outskirts the tempo is brought right down and this is when I think Buck is at his strongest. His style suits a shuffling pace and coupled with the delicate guitar and saxophone he manages to create real melancholia and with it his 1957 concept seems all the more believable.
Buck 65 is undoubtedly one of the more interesting MC's around at the moment. His back catalogue shows clearly his ability to dazzle and surprise. He is capable of intricately weaving rhymes about an abusive father or the size of his manhood all in the same album but this is the first time such a defined structure has been imposed on his work. I am not sure it really works to the extent that it's meant to as the constant references to the past can sound tired and the whole back-in-the-day hip hop thing has a very short lifespan. But, as soon as the lines are blurred around this concept the record starts to come into its own. Situation is a collection of great songs and while it may not work as a whole it is as expertly crafted as you'd expect from an artist who has always been about a hip hop renaissance.
Worry not, dear reader, this is not a record by some cheeky mix master who constructs tracks using annoyingly frequent samples of the word 'mayonnaise.' No, despite the daft name, Chris Greer has formed an intelligent, beat heavy collection of progressive instrumental hip hop. Eight years on from his debut 55 Stories, Still Alive shows a more grown up Mayo. While displaying a firm grasp of the scratch n' sample technique his new work takes a refreshingly expansive look at the instrumental scene. All too often this scene pumps out albums that sound more like collections of DJ tools with endless beat variations going nowhere, but Mayo has embraced the art of composition with this record and the songs spread out wonderfully forming the narrative of a coherent album.Read more 3 star reviews
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of this truly unique label they choose to shower us in gifts, I wish every birthday was like this - except mine of course. As a mark of this grand occasion those kind people at Big Dada have released an awesome double CD, a DVD and a special anniversary party.
I don't think there exists a label that is so trustworthy that you could buy any record it released in the safe knowledge that you'll love it, but for years I've been buying Big Dada releases knowing that I may not like it but it won't be anything to do with quality. The label has proved itself time and time again for an undying commitment to challenging and innovative music and the hip hop genre has been draped loosely around its neck but has never weighed down its steady upward progression. Label boss Will Ashton wanted to form a label that ran alongside yet independent of the mothership Ninja Tune label and would provide a home to hip hop misfits and pioneers.
Never describing themselves as a UK hip hop label, Will Ashton prefers to see it as simply "a hip hop label based in London" and with artists from the US and France on their books Big Dada must be one of the most international hip hop labels around today, and in this fact lies Ashton's most significant achievement. He has certainly championed some of the most successful UK artists like Roots Manuva, Willy, TY etc. but he has stripped them of their laborious 'UK' title and brought everything down to Hip Hop.
The CD is less of a 'best of' and more of an overview of the labels history and philosophy and it's only when this back catalogue is put together in this context that you start to get a clear picture of just how special Big Dada is. It is truly innovative but certain artists carry this flag more than others and any label boasting releases from cLOUDDEAD, New Flesh, Mike Ladd and TTC can't help to be slightly left of centre. Even from the title it's clear that Roots Manuva is the jewel in the crown of Big Dada and rightly so. I have always considered his debut Brand New Secondhand to be his finest work, but when you put them all together and drop in the flagship song Witness (1 Hope) he really is quite impressive. Mike Ladd's many incarnations keep things interesting and if things were getting a little too hip hop there's plenty of curve balls from TTC, Busdriver and newest signing Spank Rock to mix things up. What other label would put together the smooth storytelling of TY with the low down Grime of Willy? Though not particularly well represented here cLOUDDEAD really stand out from anyone and before their demise they single handedly took this label to places no other artist could go. Wherever they resided this band acted as a simmering cluster bomb blowing apart any preconceptions of genre that a label may have possessed and it took real vision to include them in the early days of this label.
Which leads me on to the DVD. Apart from the Big Dada documentary, this DVD is really about the videos. It has something like 35 videos here which must be everything that's been made. There's an impressive megamix option or you can play each video through one by one or you can set it to random so if your tv's got good enough sound this would make an awesome video juke box. Just stick it on and go about your business but you'd get snarled up on the lengthy cLOUDDEAD tour footage which is so compelling it demands your full attention. Videos from New Flesh and the crazy world of TTC are a treat, but as usual Roots Manuva steels the show with his return to his former primary school for sports day in the Witness video.
All in all this is a wonderful package indeed, and I'm not talking about Roots Manuva in his leotard. It's a great celebration of ten years of forward thinking - and for any fledgling hip hop mavericks with wild ambitions, while Big Dada is around the world must seem like a much more welcoming place.
Underground hip hop label Big Dada is 10 years old would you believe? So to celebrate they're releasing the awesome 2 CD compilation Well Deep plus a DVD. And as if that wasn't enough there's going to be a special one off live show. Featuring the likes of Roots Manuva, Cadence Weapon, Wiley and New Flesh to name but a few it sounds like a party not to be missed. It all happens at Electrowerkz on Friday 16th November 9pm - 6am.
Get your tickets here. £13.
Jackals And Vipers In Envy Of Man
Robert Squire aka Sixtoo is a man of many talents indeed and trying to pin him down to any one area is proving rather tough. He emerged from the mid 90's underground hip hop scene as an MC to be reckoned with. Sharing the stage with such visionaries as Buck 65 and Sage Francis he soon became synonymous with the Anticon/Mush collective. His 2002 release Duration saw Squire put down the mic and concentrate on the production side of Sixtoo. This has been going from strength to strength culminating in his 2003 Ninja Tune debut Chewing On Glass & Other Miracle Cures, a compelling album dripping with atmosphere. This years Jackals And Vipers builds on this formula but is an altogether darker affair.
Constructed using meticulously stitched together recordings of various live sets then taken into the studio and rendered down to their basic elements this record works as a wonderfully rich film-noir soundtrack played out in 13 movements. Each track is named Jackals & Vipers In Envy Of Man Parts 1-13 and they are designed to be listened to as a continuous whole.
Things start off pretty dark with a brief intro leading us into the drum heavy Part 2. Creeping along to pounding beats and sinister synths this awesome opener sets the tone of paranoia and pretty much keeps it up until the final movement. Though very much rooted in hip hop Squires touch is often light and it's in these moments that we see him as a master of his craft. Each sound, whether booming or whispering, is bathed in detail. Each beat comes with added effect and the samples are expertly disguised creating an impressive air of mystery that is essential to the whole. This multi layering and constant reworking can produce insanely claustrophobic compositions but can also lean back allowing strings or a delicate piano chord to evoke grand, spatial landscapes.
As the final movement draws to a close you are left with as many questions as answers but all good art should leave the viewer or listener in this way. Jackals And Vipers opens its arms and welcomes you into its hidden world of paranoia and intrigue but once you leave you'll be none the wiser as to how it was all done. It gives of itself only as much as it needs to and the rest is up to you but seeing as over generosity is often the downfall of instrumental albums such as this Sixtoo manages once again to avoid that pitfall and produce a caged piece of hip hop brilliance.
None Shall Pass
It's not often that I can start a review of a record by an underground hip hop artist and thank one of the biggest corporate giants of our time for providing us with the only taste of this guy since 2003 - but if it wasn't for Nike commissioning Aesop Rock for its inspired series of jogging tracks our hungry ears would have had very little to feast upon since the triumphant Bazooka Tooth. And Nike's interest is the result of a steady rise in the shares of this Long Island born MC/producer since his first album for Def Jux Labor Days, what some regard as his finest stroke. So None Shall Pass, his fifth proper full length has been long in the making and much anticipated by any hip hop head with a brain.
Aesop Rock is a rare commodity indeed these days, an artist who is truly pushing the envelope and who, if you're into him, has never put a foot wrong and is pretty much guaranteed not to. Some criticised the Nike piece, but for the purpose it was made to serve it did the job and though it was stripped of the free flowing lyrics I can imagine it would be good to jog to if I could ever get out of this chair. So with None Shall Pass we get our guy back where we want him and with production duties shared between Aesop himself, Blockhead and El-P the result is little short of dazzling.
Things have changed since his last record and though this is still unmistakably Def Jux much of the production has been simplified and the claustrophobic machine-beats are played down in favor of more linear, live sounding instrumentation. This leaves space for Aesop's fables, and though this has always been his strength they seem to rise to the top here and it's damn near impossible to keep up. There's no dick-swinging bravado with this guy, just complex stories bursting with mind boggling imagery and all told with lyrical dexterity that defies belief.
With the title track Aesop provides us with one of the easiest entry points to his sound in a long time (Nike discounted) It's built around a pretty straightforward beat and melodic loop and with Aesop's lyrics it rolls along relentlessly. As is often the case your ears try desperately to keep up with this lyrical pace as juicy nuggets of the English language are dropped teasingly close to our understanding but as soon as we've stopped to gather them up Aesop's way ahead. I mean when the opening lyric is "Flash that buttery gold, jittery zeitgeist wither by the watering hole, what a patrol, what are we to heart huckabee art fuckery suddenly?" How are we expected not to feast on this. Unlike militant label mates El-P or Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock often appears to take a different route but on closer inspection lyrics like "sign of the swine in the swarm when a king is a whore who comply and conform, miles outside of the eye of the storm" he shows a clear opinion of the current state of our world.
Bring Back Pluto encompasses this albums best assets. It has a plodding and delicate bongo beat that is still bass heavy enough to comfortably float the words to the surface. As does the awesome Fumes. The pace here is recreational compared to this guys previous work but as always vast swathes of texture are lurking in the background and at the half way point these textures cleverly manage to flip the beat around to a momentary quickening of speed without you even noticing.
But as much as I enjoy and appreciate this sunday stroll pace it sure is good to get moments like Citronella where the Jux machine starts grinding out stomping, gut-wrenching bass and wooly, static-frothed beats. This is brought to a climax on Gun For The Whole Family. Any album on this label wouldn't be complete without the whole Jux family getting involved and with previous songs featuring the familiar sounds of Cage and Mr. Lif it's here that label boss El-P weighs in and interestingly it's the erratic apocalyptic beat that suits El-P's frenzied style more than Aesop Rock's and it's really the bosses moment and not Aesop's.
The last track Coffee is a real departure for Aesop Rock. The beat is backed by distant vocal harmonies but then as if out of nowhere we get singing, yes, singing, and it's not just any singing, it's John Darnielle from The Mountain Goats. It would be hard to predict such a partnership but since moving to San Francisco these two artists have been collaborating and this is the first glimpse of the fruits - and it's fantastic. It also shows the kind of creative mind we are dealing with here. None Shall Pass is a hip hop record and never claims to be otherwise. It's full of deep beats, cuts and scratches and everything you'd want from a hip hop record but oh so much more. If you can decipher it you'll see a whole host of source points that go way beyond this genre. It's like reading a Kerouac novel at double speed, actually it's like reading a vast collection of short stories with no punctuation. It's a turbulent sea of words that stretches on for miles and you know that if you dive in you'll get embroiled in a whole torrent of forked-tongued, whiplash trouble but you do it all the same. After all these opportunities don't come around all that often so you'd be a fool not to.
I must admit, I've had this record for some time now but I guess I've been putting off writing any kind of review for it so I could savour that honeymoon period you get with an album before you commit your opinion to words. It's a blissfully pure period where you can react to something as special as this without having to say why. And I don't intend to say too much about why this record is so special so if you haven't heard it you're gonna have to just take my word for it.
Mansbestfriend is an alias of Anticon co-founder Sole (Tim Holland) and since 2004's The New Human Is Illegal, his first release under this name, it was clear that he had a different agenda here. The alias aims to serve the production side of Sole's talents and although the debut still contained the hard-hitting rap style that dazzled fans under his own name it was released on the largely electronic Morr Music label. So with poly.sci.187 you get the feeling that this is Sole getting about as close as he can get to his ideal. It's virtually all instrumental and it's a production master-class of the type that I never would have thought possible by such a pioneer of underground hip hop.
I say it's instrumental, but that's not entirely true. It's definitely the sound of a rapper who's got tired of his own voice so instead he has filled the songs with a whole variety of vocal samples that all serve to express the heavy political viewpoint of this man. The album opens with a quote from the famous anarchist Emma Goldman and from there we get all manner of sound-bites from a young boy pleading for peace in his homeland of Lebanon to a curious vintage recording of Wheel Of Fortune broadcasting live from the New Orleans Superdome. All of this is smothered in the richest production since Boards Of Canada. Each beat is gently coaxed out of organic textures and surrounded by all sorts of fuzz and static. It has a melancholic nostalgia that is both unsettling and strangely comforting like looking at old film footage of your grandparents as children. It's this duality that makes it so special. It can wrap you in its wooly static warmth but while you're in there you get a pretty disturbing image of the world past and present.
Is this the sound of an underground label on the turn? I doubt it judging by the quality Anticon releases that flank this one but you really have to wonder what place this collection of easy listening remixes has either on this label or on the discography of an artist with the pedigree of Alias. Together with people like Sole and Dose One, Brendon Whitney was among the first wave of artists to launch the Anticon assault and with his work on the Deep Puddle Dynamics project and his debut The Other Side Of The Looking Glass Alias established himself as main player in this pioneering collective.
Which makes this release all the more curious. It's not bad at all, in fact many of these tracks in their own right are pretty solid but put them in a context such as this and boredom soon sets in. This is a pretty varied cast featuring the likes of Lunz, Sixtoo and Lali Puna and yet it all sounds like a substandard Alias record. All distinctive characteristics of the original songs seem to have been ironed out in favor of the presiding bass heavy, synth beat that Alias is all about at the moment.
Some standout moments are Why?'s inclusion on the 13 & God remix, lush atmospherics on Lucky Pierre's Crush and the song of the album has to go to Sixtoo's Karmic Retribution/Funny Sticks with it's booming beat and apocalyptic grandiosity. But these are the songs I would have expected to shine as the originals are so good and a part from that it's all pretty forgettable. I normally recoil from remix albums for the opposite reason, that they are too fragmented, so I guess that's one distinctive feature about this record.
Maths & English
My my, hasn't he grown. The third album from the young up-start sees age and experience add eight to his still gritty rhyme style. The blueprint is still the same since his 2003 Mercury Prize inning debut Boy In Da Corner but with the gift of hindsight he is able to craft a much fuller ecord not just in content but also in style enlisting the help of US rappers Bun B and Pimp C, Shy FX and finishing off with an all UK line up of Alex Turner and Lily Allen.
This new maturity is expressed from the outset with World Outside where Dizzee illuminates the importance of seeing the bigger picture that lies beyond both his fame and the ghetto roots that he has come from. You can almost hear Earl's brother look up from his beer with the start of the next track Pussyole saying "Tell me they didn't just go oldskool." Here Dizzee raps furiously over the awesome Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock beat bringing a fresh dose of grime to this classic. Where's Da G's questions fake gangsters while Bubbles is a full-on dick swinging boast-fest about Dizzee's success. But you can't argue with a word he says here as it's all true, it's all to be applauded and it's all rhymed over the tightest production.
Tracks like Hardback (Industry) illustrate just how far this MC has come. This song sounds like Dizzee Rascal's pitch at a school careers evening explaining the pitfalls of making it big in the music industry as he dishes out advice over a deep, booming beat. It's the stark contrast of tracks like this and the ego filled, abrasive moments like first single Sirens and album closer U Can't Tell Me Nuffin' that make this record so appealing. On Suk My Dick Dizzee claims "When I was a kid I had a chip upon my shoulder but it aint getting better as I am getting older." This is so true and somewhere in this line lies the success of Maths & English. The dust certainly has settled on Dizzee's life of Grime but it is the sign of a great artist to be able to preach words of startling wisdom with honest conviction while also retaining the edge that put him at the top in the first place.
Though 2005 saw Black Milk release Sounds Of The City he then signed to Fat Beats, making Popular Demand his official debut. Recalling the late, great J Dilla in its looped soul melodies and hollow beats, Popular Demand signals a welcome return to grass roots hip hop. Featuring a whole host of local Detroit heavyweights from Slum Village to Guilty Simpson, producer/MC Curtis Cross has delivered an intelligent record with tight beats and easy-flow rhymes.
After a slow start with the title track, Sound The Alarm is an early highlight with its slow crunching beat and reverberating baseline. Guilty Simpson's deadly serious delivery bumps hard alongside Black Milk's layered production which loops perfectly around the beat. The tempo is stepped up for the next track Insane, a jumped-up, intricately constructed beat that backs up Black Milk's effortless flow.
Popular Demand is a well paced ride with frequent instrumental interludes like the expertly crafted, sample heavy Play The Keys and slower rhymed cuts like the soulful Three+Sum allowing welcome relief from the big beats of tracks like the album highlight Watch 'Em. Here Que Diesel and Fat Ray create a glorious piece of hip hop fitting each rhyme into the rolling, hand-clapped beat with its stop/start confidence that just keeps on bumpin.
There has been much talk about this young talent filling the shoes of fellow Detroit mastermind Dilla and this album shows him more than capable of carrying this mantle. In fact Cross seems more comfortable in front of the mic than Dilla did sculpting his production perfectly to fit his rhyming style. Following in the footsteps of bigwigs like Jay Z or Kanye West and younger MC's like Lupe Fiasco Black Milk is the real deal and this record continues Detroit's underground hip hop pedigree.
Human The Death Dance
After hearing the opening track to the 3rd full length from this master of all things spoken I started planning my 'fallen hero' review. With a heavy heart and a heavier pen I began the obituary of this lyrical wizard, combing through his previous two albums trying to find any predictions for this untimely demise. But luckily for Sage Francis and you, my worthy readers, I am not one of these people who writes a review based on the first few tracks, because by track 3 I was beginning to mentally screw up my previous review and was only too glad to find myself back at the drawing board. Where Underground For Dummies started things off with a predictable and unimaginative back-story to Sage's hip hop pedigree Civil Disobedience restores the factory settings and it's pretty much clever wordplay and tight rhymes from here on in.
After a string of EPs it was 2002's Personal Journals that really let Sage flex his lyrical muscles. It was a dark and and gritty portrait of a man on the edge and was followed up in 2005 with the awesome A Healthy Distrust. This was an upgrade from the first album in every way. The beats were massive and the rhymes fiercer than anything that had gone before. I guess Human The Death Dance falls somewhere in between - which is no bad place to reside in the Sage back catalogue.
On A Healthy Distrust, Sage confessed to having "more back issues than Guns n' Ammo," and this album shows that few of these issues have been resolved, instead they seem to have festered and grown more potent over the years. Like friend and fellow poetic genius Buck 65, Sage Francis has always written his own rules and has never complied to any Hip Hop cliche. Instead of dick-swinging lyrics and thugged-out, self-referencing imagery we get an outpouring of anger, self-pity and cynicism slotted expertly into well crafted beats. The variety of beats here is what makes this album so listenable. Clickety Clack describes its beat perfectly while the dark and brooding Call Me Francois sounds like a Terminator chase scene.
But here's something I don't normally say in a hip hop review - it's the slow jams that really steel the show here. The best moments in the Sage Francis live show are when all the beats quit and he goes it alone. He has such lyrical dexterity - and without a beat this really shines. So the closest we get to that on a record is when the beat slows down as in Water Line or is replaced altogether by a full string section as on the epic Good Fashion. But there is a run of glory on the last four tracks starting with the album highlight Hell Of A Year. This is classic Sage Francis - slow, dark and oozing with melancholia. Few hip hop songs are about failed relationships and lost love but this is Sage's forte and the power of this song is still ringing in your ears when you get to the album closer Going Back To Rehab. This is Sage's most adventurous song yet. At just over six minutes it starts with a gentle guitar melody with Sage rhyming fluidly and venomously slowly getting fiercer and fiercer until the beat kicks in and the spit starts flying. It's an angry and powerful way to finish this super-intelligent third album and if it wasn't so damn good you'd be reaching for the phone, dialing the authorities to warn them that this guy's gonna do something bad sometime soon. But musically this isn't that time thank god and shame on me for thinking the Francis crown had slipped.
The Undisputed Truth
The second full album from Brother Ali sees him turn a recent divorce, being a single dad and coping with losing his mother to cancer into more than a few tasty nuggets of hard hitting, intelligent hip hop. Since his debut Shadows On The Sun, Brother Ali has often become a breath of fresh air in this hip hop game blending well crafted lyrics with bass heavy, rolling beats. As a devout Muslim his raps have always been very earnest which set my alarm bells ringing from the start. While the constant tirade of thug rap bores the hell out of me there's something about rap with an overly positive message that makes me cringe, even if what they are saying is what I believe. But Brother Ali repeatedly avoids this pit fall often peppering this outlook with normal behavior like swearing and the odd bit of comedy.
To be honest, Shadows On The Sun blended these things more successfully and this album is starting to show signs of over-seriousness, a road Blackalicious took a while ago and their creativity has never recovered. A lot has happened to Ali since his debut which would explain this shift. His now ex-wife seems to have tried to kill him and her demise has left him in sole custody of his son, for the whole story see Walking Away. There has also been a war or two (Letter From The Government.)
But running through all this is what makes Brother Ali so individual, his flow. He has a style that can bring to mind Nelly or 50 Cent but is at the same time totally unique and with Atmosphere's Ant concocting deep, thundering beats the result is addictive. He can alter this style for slower beats (Here) making them intimate and then rise gloriously to beats like the awesome The Puzzle or the fierce Listen Up. The album is very well paced giving the listener time to recover with light numbers like Take Me Home and Uncle Sam Goddamn the kind of bumping swagger that would be ideal to bounce to in a low-ride ...if only my Nissan could handle it.
Though not quite so appealing as his debut, The Undisputed Truth is better than most and being an albino muslim rapper he can't help to make hip hop that looks at things differently. As long as he can keep his faith to a footnote and maintain his unique ability to spit the hard rhymes as well as the laid back tracks then he will continue to be a worthy light in these dark times.
Dingwalls, Camden, London
Camden's hive of scum and villainy were out in force last night and were foaming at the mouth for a piece of the Def Jux head honcho. Backed by a band dressed in combat gear and balaclavas El-P arrived on stage in Guantanamo Bay's Spring/Summer collection, a short sleeve orange boiler suit complete with head wounds and a bloody nose. This choice of attire together with El-P's admission "Sorry but we don't have any happy songs," set the tone early and I started to take one step back from my much coveted front and centre position.
As the bass-heavy intro to new album opener Tasmanian Pain Coaster started, the rabid dogs around me moved into position and Dingwalls erupted. It's a fantastic start to the album and it had equal impact here, with the chorus "This is the sound of what you don't want killing you," being spat back by the brawling pit as venomously as it was being dished out by what looked like the cast of Con Air. This was then followed by Fantastic Damage's Deep Space 9mm to the delight of the old school contingency. When El delivered the line "I signed to Rawkus" the crowd were only too happy to scream back the reply "I'd rather be mouth-fucked by Nazis unconscious," which was nice. And so it continued with much of the new album getting an airing. Heavy hitters like Flyentology, Drive and Smithereens kicked out furiously and it seems El's fans are receiving this new stuff as passionately as they did Fantastic Damage. And so they should as when put next to the older work these songs dispalyed a might all of their own.
An unexpected bonus was the addition of the mighty Mr. Dibbs on beat duty. His beats were as tight as always and he played them with an all-consuming passion and concentration that sometimes rivaled the big man for visual attention. During a short interval - while El-P went off to mop up the blood from his dripping ears - we were treated to the skills of Dibbs, an expert mash up of hip hop favorites - together with Radiohead's National Anthem more than kept the crowd occupied.
Despite the slightly cliched dress code (Sage Francis was rocking the orange boiler suit and bandages years ago) this was an awesome display of El-P's shock and awe brutality and was delivered with all the passion you'd expect from this man. Gripping the mic like he was throttling a chicken he screamed down its neck like a man possessed. His back-up MC shadowed him all the time and whipped the crowd into a violent, heaving frenzy that continued until the last giving the front man cause to show real appreciation at this reception and as we all limped home with real blood stains on our clothes we clung to our ringing ears like trophies of a job well done.
Timbaland Presents Shock Value
Unfortunately this latest offering from the apparent genius producer Timbaland proves that no album is the sum of its parts alone. It's another dream-team album featuring the same old names, Timbalake, Furtado, Missy Elliot, Dr Dre, 50 Cent and some new ones that really have no business here, like The Hives and Fall Out Boy. Put alongside the work this guy has done on other peoples records, Shock Value suggests that Timbaland can dish out advice but just can't take it.
It all starts off so well with Oh Timbaland making great use of a Nina Simone Sinnerman sample and the catchy Give It To Me with Nelly Furtado, but then Timbalake's effort Release signals a steady decline into monotonous, forgettable tripe - out of which the album struggles to pull itself. Not surprisingly the absolute ground zero of all this crap comes with the Fall Out Boy collaboration One & Only, but actually having said that, if we're judging between levels of shitness it's hard to separate any of the final 3 tracks. Timbaland has worked with many of these artists before and this album sounds like a sweep up from their cutting room floor. The one star rating here is earned in the first track alone along with Timbalake's gaul to ask us in the closing track, "Don't it sound good to ya, don't you agree."