I'll Sleep When You're Dead
2007, and The El-P show is in town once again and as usual it's tooled up ready for an all out assault on just about anything. It's hard to believe that this is only the second full length from the Def Jux label boss as he has been widely regarded as the unofficial king of the underground for a decade now.
It's been almost 5 years since the awesome Fantastic Damage and all the events both artistic and political that have occurred for El-P during this time have left their mark on this record. He has crossed musical paths with a whole host of artists over the years and the result is an album packed full of guest contributions by the likes of Cat Power, Mars Volta and NIN's Trent Reznor. Refreshingly though, none of these are mentioned as 'featuring' on the track-list as explained eloquently here by the man himself. "It's the Southpark theory: When George Clooney appeared on Southpark, it was as a gay dog. That's the type of shit that makes my day." He also delivered 2004's Blue Series fringe jazz project High Water which just contributes to the ever widening artistic pallet of this man.
El-P's political leanings are slightly less tangable. He sure ain't no Republican, but his venomous world view is disguised so expertly in the abstract lyrics that the general feeling of rage and well placed, intelligent scorn is a whole lot more powerful than direct spitting. But where this record differs from it's predecessor is in scale. Politically the world is a very different place now compared to 2002 and though Fantastic Damage was a pretty angry record, this one seems to have a much larger agenda . If his debut was the venting of personal hatred the followup is global and from the outset it's awesomely clear that El Producto is definitely back up in this ma fucka.
Tasmanian Pain Coaster starts things off on a scale that is rarely matched on the rest of the record. It's big and it's scary. It's the sound of an army stamping its steel toe-capped boots to the beat, the looped piano is a call to arms. This opener is the unequivocal sound of a disaffected people marching to war and they march here in awesome numbers and with a power that is breathtaking. With Mars Volta and Matt Sweeney adding guitars to this melting pot of rage this is a force to be reckoned with. The unique thing about any record by El-P is it's ambiguity and irony. You never know when he's being serious or not. After this opener comes to an end and every hair on your body is tingling from a mixture of fear and excitement he starts the next song with the words "Bring me the dramatic intro machine," rendering this huge beginning mere irony and any power you drew from it now makes you feel a bit stupid and gullible. This is both annoying and impressive. It makes you wake up and realise that you're not listening to a normal hip hop record that can be allowed to wash over you with head nodding beats and empty lyrics. This is different and should be questioned at all times and it certainly isn't about to give up the booty this early on in the date.
So on we tread with our feet firmly on the ground. EMG uses a classic "Rock The Bells" beat and in it's Hip Hop hall of fame name-checking we see more of El-P's irony being exorcised on his very own genre. Drive sees El at his lyrical best. Using the car metaphor he gives a pretty bleak outlook on the world today. Starting with the lyric "C'mon Ma, can I borrow the keys, my generation's car-pooling with doom and disease," everything from "Jesus of Nascarith" to Falujah is put through this metaphor, and it's awesome. Flyentology creatively describes the new religion of doomed air travel, "faith v's physics," describing a plummeting plane as "the vessel of my awakening."
The album is put to bed with El-P's dystopian lullaby with Cat Power on backing vocals. Throughout this seven minute closer the beat oozes the boom of apocalyptic doom, the layered production and non-stop rhyming is very claustrophobic until everything is wiped away leaving a dirty looped beat to see us through to the end. The delicate keyboard that rides this beat seems to lull us to sleep, but I fear it's the sleep of the dead not the peaceful.
The problem with being the hip hop reviewer for a white, middle class indie rock website is that you don't tend to get much work. Sure, I get paid the same as the other chimps, but you can often find me in the canteen here at Chimp Towers sippin' on a 40' with my feet up - waiting for a beep on my pager from CSF to tell me he's got something for me. Long days amble by and the odd thugged-out dick rap record comes and goes but in the words of Ice T " I don't play that shit." I took this job for the cause. Hip Hop has the potential to be the most exciting and creatively diverse genres of them all - it doesn't have the boundaries that others suffer from, it goes where it pleases or at least it should.
So one lazy afternoon after finishing my fourth brewski, I was thinking of popping out for some more cigar papers to escape the accusing glares of the dinner ladies (I had just been crunking furiously while shouting " Errr' body in the club gettin' tipsy,") when my pager goes buck-wild. "Busdriver, WTF?" was all it said. At first I thought it was my editor wanting me to drive the Chimpmobile on another day trip - but then remembered the new album RoadKillOvercoat by the LA tongue twisting lyricist. Finally a real job. Busdriver's previous albums for Big Dada were like no other. He's the gatling gun of the hip hop world, delivering intricately constructed raps with rapid-fire dexterity. This was gonna be good - something proper to get my teeth into, but damn, I was hella' drunk.
From the outset the signs were all there that this was going to be a treat. Casting Agents And Cowgirls sees Busdriver fit his rhymes expertly round a a tight beat which prepares us well for the machine gun onslaught of Less Yes's, More No's. Rhyming "Soccer Moms" with " Carpet Bombs," this track is about lyrical muscle flexing, as is the next installment where we're told, "Recreational paranoia is the sport of now so kill your employer." You can almost imagine the speed of the little ball bouncing over these words at the bottom of a Karaoke screen.
And so it continues, but once you reach mid point you are thrilled but starting to map out the rest of the record. This is where this album becomes a great hip hop record. With Sun Shower, Busdriver plays his hip hop ace card - he reaches into his inside pocket and pulls out a fully credible license to do what the fuck he wants. All hip hop cats have this license, but few know it. After dazzling us with lyrical acrobatics the dude starts singing. Yes singing. His floaty vocals drift effortlessly over a minimal, deep techno beat and if you thought this was just an interlude, the next track sees Busdriver duet with Coco Rosie's Bianca Cassidy. My editors pager words echoed in my head "Busdriver, What The Fuck?" indeed. The Troglodyte Wins restores the hip hop factory settings but they sound fresher now. The beats are gloriously tight, the rhymes even more thrilling and they see us through to the end where we get yet more of that singing stuff, and there's even an acoustic guitar on blissful closer Dream Catcher's Mitt.
This kind of thing makes my days in the canteen gettin' tipsy worthwhile. It's clever, but not anally so and Busdriver has cultivated a refreshing blend of fiercely intelligent poetry with the playful humour of his earlier work. Since the demise of Blackalicious the cause needs rhymes of this agility - and Busdriver carries the torch to new heights, skillfully avoiding the pitfall of cliche with a style such as his. RoadKillOvercoat is an album that delights the same way anything by Buck 65 or Dose One would and it does what hip hop set out to do. What ever the fuck it wants.
Here's my best of 2006:
Subtle - For Hero For Fool
Cadence Weapon - Breaking Kayfabe
Lupe Fiasco - Food & Liquor
The Roots - Game Theory
Mr. Lif - Mo' Mega
Liars - Drums Not Dead
Dosh - The Lost Take
From Anticon's mail out:
Subtle recently shared Thanksgiving short of all their tour earnings, Dose's laptop, and other personal belongings thanks to a thief in Spain. They are in serious need of help, as now without this money, they are in debt. How can you help? For a measly $20 donation to the cause Doseone will create a personalized portrait of you (or whoever you would like).
Peanut Butter Wolf Presents...Chrome Children
Following the critical success of Dangerdoom's The Mouse And The Mask, the late-night animation network Adult Swim has teamed up with Stones Throw records to bring us this epic all-star compilation that really showcases the breadth and scope of this label. Stones Throw is celebrating it's ten year anniversary and following the excellent 'Stones Throw: Ten Years' record, Chrome Children is the second compilation to mark this occasion. The label has always been committed to quality beats whatever form the may come in and Chrome Children features big hitters like MF Doom, Madlib and J Dilla alongside lesser known artists like Guilty Simpson.
Having teamed up with a cartoon network you might expect playful beats from the Ugly Duckling school of thought but then you must remember that Adult Swim brought us cynical classics like Family Guy and American Dad, so bubbly beats is the last thing on offer here. Oh Zone starts us off gently with a wonderfully eclectic beat structure and effortless rhymes that leads us on to the star of the album - Guilty Simpson. Stones Throw's newest signing and long time J Dilla associate, Simpson has a dark and brooding rhyme style and with the lyric "My mood swings like pendulums, I got two birds, one's the middle finger and trust me it's the friendly one," his voice resonates with a booming seriousness that is echoed by the minimal bass heavy beat. The quality keeps coming, with Madlib offering up a great solo cut that showcases his easy as pie style. Stones Throw's ace card is the mighty and elusive MF Doom who appears here with Madlib as Madvillian and Monkey Suite takes no prisoners. Doom's vocals are monotone and unrelenting, the beat: dark and plodding and all the other tracks tread carefully around Monkey Suite, so as not to anger this masked and hooded heavyweight.
But thankfully it's not all doom and gloom and the many instrumentals here offer much needed relief. Koushnik offers up a funked-up calypso gem in the style of Stomp armed with a plethora of rubber dustbins while James Pants hits us with a B-Boy friendly slice of breakbeat bliss. All this was a surprise to me as I had the J Dilla cut pegged as the instrumental high point but was sadly disappointed. Nothing Like This is an adventurous piece of beat technology that has all the signs of Dilla class but ultimately goes nowhere. Dudley Perkins crafts an expert 3 minutes of cartoon hip hop that falls somewhere between Outkast and Del era Gorrilaz. His style of rhyme/singing over the dramatically animated beat seems almost freestyle and it's playful tone is very welcome at the midpoint of this record.
The beauty of this long standing record label is its refusal to be type cast as a hip hop label and has continued to source new forms of funk, R'nB and soul but as a compilation this can sometimes tread thin ice. With the exception of Pure Essence's glorious Gil Scott Heron infused soul of Third Rock the non hip hop cuts seam weak when put alongside the heavy-hitting rhyme sayers and Chrome Children does seem to tail off towards the end. But this is all forgotten when you take a look at the DVD that accompanies this anniversary collection. It features interviews with Madlib and Stones Throw mastermind Peanut Butter Wolf but more importantly showcases the labels all-star line up gig at the SXSW festival. Though not particularly visual this gig shows just how important this label is and features all the players including a highlight set from the lyrical acrobatics of Percee P. The masked figure of MF Doom is the headline act here and offers non US viewers a rare chance to catch his live set as he is curiously unable to leave America.
A label of this magnitude can't hope to please every one all the time and though this generous package is patchy at times it shows us just how high its sights are set and with fantastic album art work and some brilliantly animated videos on the website it really shows its commitment to creativity in general.
The Lost Take
The road that Dosh has chosen or is destined to travel is well trodden and as a result can often be perilous. Instrumental hip hop sounds like a good idea but can often fall into the chill out trap and forever condemned to an eternity of middle class diner parties. Fortunately Martin Dosh skillfully avoids these pitfalls and his third full length for Anticon "The Lost Take" is easily his best yet - and actually has no right to be classed as hip hop.
Having started off playing drums in the avant-guard DIY outfit Fog, Dosh released his debut self titled album in 2003 followed by 2004's Pure Trash which featured assistance from Anticon heavy weights Doseone, Jel and Odd Nosdam. With The Lost Take the collaborations are just as frequent but of a different sort. Dosh has cleverly enlisted the help of a plethora of musicians from Fog's Jeremy Ylvisaker, Erik Appelwick from Tapes 'n Tapes and the wonderful violin of Andrew Bird. This is the key to the success of this record. Proficient on most instruments himself, Dosh has created a record that though predominantly drum based is a homage to the art of live orchestration. "Um, Circles And Squares" is the first instance of this dazzling love for music. Here, Bird's strings form a beautiful cushion for Dosh's rolling Rhodes sequences and drum beats. This prepares us for the album highlight of "A Ghosts Business". This could be a scene from a Disney cartoon about the nighttime goings on in a music shop. After the owner leaves the store, the instruments come alive and jam erratically to their hearts content expressing the unbridled freedom that an instrument would if it was locked up in a shop all it's life. As conductor, Dosh makes us think he's lost control of his orchestra - but expertly brings them into line with Prefuse 73 style cutting and pasting.
This track is very important to the album as a whole. Not only does it let us know what this man is capable of, but gives us a valuable insight into the intentions of The Lost Take. Every song after it seems to work better with this knowledge. By enlisting the help of such talents, Dosh creates a rich pallet from which to work his magic. Appelwick's crunching guitar chords give strength to the piano and drums of "MPLS Rock And Roll", making it a triumphant anthem - while his subtle finger picking weaves softly amongst the textural percussion contributing to the delicate warmth of "O Mexico".
I imagine each of the twelve tracks on The Lost Take as an intrepid group of explorers in the old Tarzan movies bravely making their way through the jungle. Comprised predominantly of toffee-nosed British aristocrats and their native bag carriers, they negotiate the perilous mountain path known as "Chill-Out Pass". To lose your footing here would mean plummeting into the raging crocodile infested waters of Hoxton-quiff-sporting-Foxton's employees, hungry to get their soft hands on the next soundtrack to their upcoming Thai fusion themed dinner party. Sadly, not everyone here makes it to safety. "Everybody Cheer Up Song" and the closing sax horror of "The Lost Take" only lose their footing for a second, but that's all it takes on this journey to fall to the depths of mediocrity. But everyone else bravely push on to the other side. Once there, they find the going slightly easier, as a path of sorts has already been forged by people like Four Tet and Prefuse 73, but armed with the brave pioneering Anticon spirit the remaining members of The Lost Take form their own roads through this wilderness to discover new and rich pastures. One would hope that after showing such courage Dosh won't rest on these green and plentiful lands but will strive on to higher ground.
Imagine if you can: it's the year 2040 and the music scene is in a state of crisis. RnB rules the charts and is all that's allowed to be played on the radio. Since the earliy naughties the hip hop section of the record store became known as 'Urban' and most rap albums had to incorporate some form of RnB just to make sales. Artists such as Common and Kanye West who were targeted by the RnB militia to spread this evil seed in the hip hop community eventually buckled under the pressure and stopped recording altogether. Rumor has it that Common was set to release an album called Strictly Hip Hop but it never saw the light of day due to death threats to his family. So the genre formerly known as Hip Hop disappeared from the public's view completely. But an underground resistance refused to die out and continued to filter quality beats to those in need. There was a great war and the resistance was nearly quashed so in order to put an end to this they developed a group of cyborgs known as The Anti Pop Consortium and sent them back to the year 1985. Their mission was to kill a little boy called Craig David who would go on to popularize RnB in Europe. The mission was accomplished but unfortunately made absolutely no difference to the future at all. The resistance analyzed the growth of RnB and noticed that instead of it being attributed to the evil of one person it was born out of the apathy and boredom of the world at large. So a new plan was formed and a new cyborg crafted, better, stronger, faster. His name was Cadence Weapon.
Canada was selected as the best place to start this attack as the glare of the RnB Eye was firmly focused on America and Britain. Sent back to the year 2005 he unleashed his first wave of destruction, a devastating mixtape called Cadence Weapon Is The Black Hand and then so as not to give the RnB militia time to recover he hit them again in 2006 with Breaking Kayfabe, a collection of hip hop cuts so strong and so forceful that it sent shock waves throughout the world. Breaking Kayfabe (Kayfabe being the Resistance code for RnB scum) was designed using the original blue prints of The Anti Pop Consortium mission. The sound was hard and electronic so as to allow no fertile ground for the RnB 'Good Singing' germ to grow. This new model of machine was equipped with enough skills to become a one man army and the whole Breaking Kayfabe project was crafted by Cadence Weapon himself, from the sterile, impenetrable and chest-stomping beats to the venomous lyrics spat out with such force and machine-like precision.
For a while the enemy was crippled due to the force of this attack but they soon regrouped and retaliated with a double fist. Both Lamar and Usher released records of such dazzling vocal beauty that the world was gripped by their evil tales of perfect love making. Luckily Cadence Weapon's arrival was strong enough to wake many hip hop warriors, including Busta Rhymes and LL Cool J, from their RnB sleep and the war was won. RnB was forever kept under wraps being confined to young girls and those genuinely gifted at love making. There was a brief uprising in France but that was no biggy.
The facts: Cadence Weapon is 19, from Canada and this album is really, really good. Best bits: Oliver Square, Black Hand and 30 Seconds. There's no stopping this kid, it's what he does, it's all he does.
For Hero: For Fool
I haven't heard a hip hop album this original since the last Subtle album. Formed in 2001 by Anticon's Jel (Jeffrey Logan) and Doseone (Adam Drucker) Subtle took their time getting started. After a few singles and 2 EP's, Summer and Autumn, they finally got around to their debut full length in 2004. A New White was a multi layered musical masterpiece that vaguely clung to the fringes of hip hop fusing programmed and live beats, with electronics, strings and Dose's expertly delivered vocals. Their stage show was equally magnificent with a white top hat and tails clad Dose springing around the band like a court jester possessed. While on tour in 2005 their bus skidded off the road paralyzing keyboardist Dax Pierson from the chest down. It seems a small miracle this album was ever made due to the seriousness of Pierson's injuries not to mention the fact that much of the harmonica and backing vocals come from Dax himself.
But thankfully it was made - as it's yet another forward thinking piece of Anticon splendor. Since the demise of cLOUDDEAD and Themselves, and with Deep Puddle Dynamics being less than productive Subtle has become the main vehicle for Doseone to flex his outstanding lyrical muscle and with Jel on beats, Marty Dowers on woodwind, Jordan Dalrymple on guitar, Alex Kort on cello and the afore mentioned Pierson, Subtle's sound is textured to say the least. The key to their success is their grasp of contrast, light and dark, blur and focus, chiaroscuro if you will. Their multi layering of samples, instruments and sometimes indecipherable spoken and sung vocals create a pea soup like fog of sound that is then punctuated by its opposite. Sharp beats and Doseone's acutely pronounced prose spring from this fog at a thrilling pace but never become formulaic, quite the opposite. Much of Subtle's music is confusing and can often make the listener feel as if he is involved in a private conversation of which he knows nothing about, the music never goes where you think it will and although the theme of human pointlessness and the general decay of society is graspable the delivery is often in the form of surreal word play that moves on quicker than you can keep up.
As a whole For Hero: For Fool adopts the same contrasting form that each song does. A Tale Of Apes I & II usher in the fog with the use of post rock mush, Boards Of Canada style nostalgia-synth and Kraftwerk electro pop while Middleclass Stomp swamps you with it's glorious power-cord pop. The three main points of sharp focus are the hip hop extravaganza of Midas Gutz, the unashamedly danceable The Mercury Gaze and the jaw dropping Return Of The Gaze. Here Jel lays down the most complex beat of clicks, scratches and stabs with Doseone's rapping coming in softly at a pace that defies comprehension, he never misses a beat, he doesn't even breathe. His nasal delivery seems to take on the same properties as the electronic, stop-start beat and an accompaniment of gentle acoustic guitar and brushed cymbals culminating in wailing guitar and crashing drums makes this the finest moment on the album. Vocal dexterity is Dose's forte and when put with Jel's masterful grasp of the textured beat the result is an aural delight.
Hip Hop was born from the deconstruction and reassembling of other genres and for that reason remains one of the most versatile music forms. It's creative perimeters are huge. There is nothing it can't borrow, steal or sample. This scope is expressed perfectly in the music of Subtle who seem to see no limits to how far they can stretch this genre. In the hazy, surreal fog of For Hero: For Fool boundaries and classifications are simply not visible.
Mr. Lif could rhyme over a pneumatic drill and you would have to sit up and listen and with fellow Def Juxter El P on production for 8 of these tracks a pneumatic drill isn't too far off the mark. This is Lifs follow up to 2002's I Phantom and it's as intense as ever.
Lif's delivery is cold and relentless but its in the subject matter where you really find the heart and soul of this album. The general concept on Mo Mega is how the increasingly modern world is slowly consuming the lower, poorer classes and with his unique monotone, nasal drawl he lambasts everyone from the President to the FBI to fast food chains. Lif never messes about and with El P behind him chucking out dirty beats to make your eyes water the flavor is as hard hitting and uncompromising as the political onslaught of early Public Enemy.
The early stand out is Lif's relentless attack on McDonalds with The Fries. Here we get his conspiracy theory of how the government is using fast food to cripple the poor and its told with dazzling vocal skill. Do excuse the hefty quote coming up but it's pure genius. "A new disease that you caught at Mcydee's, in your quarter pounder with cheese, order with ease, super size please. People won't even survive through the drive thru. kids blacked out in the back with a happy meal, what a crappy deal, but it was only four ninety nine so there's more people in line, yea the plan's running fine, the parking lot is now a burial plot where you can park and rot if you can find a spot."
The best thing about most Def Jux releases is that they often feature other label artists which is always a real treat. Here we see the intensity peak with Take Hold, Fire! featuring the mighty Aesop Rock and El P. These guest vocals come as a welcome break from the relentless tone of Lif and it makes for a classic Def Jux lyrical master-class. This signals a general easing off on the political accelerator and the comic frivolity of Murs Iz My Manager comes as a breath of fresh air. Here the two rappers argue about why Murs should manage Lif to make him more commercial. Lif is having none of it and at one point Murs asks how he is supposed to get Lif the Herbal Essence sponsorship if he never washes his hair.
From here on the beats are lighter and more 'hip hop' I guess. The vocals ease up as a result and once you get to the end you just want another go. Rappers like Mr. Lif and his Def Jux buddies are really stretching this genre and it's thrilling to behold. If I was a Head Of State I would look on this group with some worry. They have such a ferocious style that you get the impression that if their music doesn't change things they are perfectly prepared to walk into the Oval Office and start breaking some heads.
Jay Dee aka J Dilla is known as a producer's producer and was often compared to the likes of DJ Premier and Kanye West. He is a little known character in the Hip Hop world but was responsable for such master works as The Pharcyde's Running and De La Soul's Stakes Is High. His is a story of unrelenting dedication and a story who's end came far too soon - both for him and hip hop. He suffered from illness for many years, performing in a wheelchair towards the end of his career, and finally died just days after his 32nd birthday.
The Shining was the album he was working on when he died and just before the end he passed it on to fellow Detroit producer and long time friend Karriem Riggins. It is a mouthwatering line up featuring Common, Busta Rhymes and Madlib but despite this it is a very disjointed whole. This is to be expected considering the circumstances but when it's good it's great. It would be a crime to give some of these guys a whack beat and Dilla dutifully lays down a beauty for Common on E=MC2. Common is at his best when rhyming over hard and funky rhythms and that is what he gets here. At a glance the best cuts here are the "Love" songs. Love Jones is an all too short instrumental ditty from the man himself, Love featuring Pharoahe Monch is a classic soul groove, Jungle Love is a low down, dirty, beat driven grime-fest featuring MED and Guilty Simpson where we get the priceless line " I got hoe's like firemen." In an album that frequently sways into mushy RnB, Jungle Love has enough dick and hoe boasting to see us through. The last "Love" song is Black Thought's masterfull Love Movin'. The complex clicky beat is like nothing you've ever heard and it flows with the greatest of ease to the hard hitting vocals of The Roots front-man.
Unfortunately these moments are broken up by some less than perfect and often week cuts like the shocking collaboration between Common and D'Angelo and Busta Rhymes' testosterone filled opener that sounds more like a Richard Prior sketch. It's not enough to ruin this great artist's final work, however it does suggest, annoyingly so, what The Shining could have been if Dilla had been allowed to see it through.