Sunday, February 27, 2011

February 2K11 in Hip Hop Terms

The Lowdown, 2/27/11

Another month, another slew of dope hip hop releases. The first two were real stand-outs to me. Strong early nominees for the top ten of 2011, actually:

1) Sims "Bad Time Zoo" (Doomtree)

I've said it once and I'll say it again: Doomtree is the only group that I always anticipate hearing from and that I have yet to be disappointed by. Much like Dessa's "Badly Broken Code" from last year, my anticipation for "Bad Time Zoo" has been boiling for years, to the point where the album couldn't possibly live up to my lofty expectations. Yet somehow, it did. The years of work that Sims and Lazerbeak spent honing and perfecting this masterpiece really paid off, as everything about it screams "lavabanger." On the rapping front, Sims has progressed a huge amount since his "Lights Out Paris" days, with a more daring approach to rhyming and a new soulful edge to his vocals and delivery. The entire album is exceptionally well-written, touching upon social and political commentary in a way that's easy to relate to. Sims taps into the ways that people live and interact through his keen observations and personal narratives, and the animal imagery that he strings throughout the album is smart without ever seeming esoteric. On the beat tip, Lazerbeak delivers some of his strongest productions to date for Sims to flow over. From the dark opening jungle hymns of "Future Shock" to the epic blaring guitars of "In My Sleep," every beat in this body work will have you banging your head over how dope it is. Just listen to the track "Radio Opaque" below and tell me that isn't a massive beat... old-school El-P fans, eat your heart out! Bottom line: "Bad Time Zoo" is pretty much essential listening.

2) Void Pedal "Omni-Colour" (Fieldwerk)

This talented Chicago producer really delivers on the promise of his free self-titled EP and emerges with one of the stronger instrumental hip hop releases in recent memory. Void Pedal's carefully crafted layers of electronic keys and basslines really evoke a wide range of emotions over the course of the album and his sound has its own quirky flair to it. Much like the albums that Teebs and The Opus produced last year, this is top tier headphone listening that is meant to be heard front to back in all its glorious detail. "Omni-Colour" has a very unified sound as a body of work, but is not without its stand-out moments either - the bouncy bassline and waving electro effects of "Parachute" and the menacing bleeping progression of "Choke You" come to mind. But my favorite track on "Omni-Colour" is definitely "Baldwin," a song with such mysterious grandeur and emotional chords that I practically flew the first time I heard it. Fans of older RJD2, the current LA beat scene, or Dark Time Sunshine's producer Zavala will likely be digging this album hard. Hear "Looking Glass" below:

Void Pedal - Looking Glass by fieldwerk

3) Awol One & Factor "The Landmark" (Fake Four)

While not nearly as good as the two albums listed above and not the best work by either Factor or Awol One, "The Landmark" is never the less a damn interesting album worthy of at least a couple of spins. The album is strange above everything else, taking Awol's moan-singing style to the next degree and ultimately feeling more similar to Factor's indie pop project Common Grackle than any of Awol's previous albums. At it's heights, the album really does achieve a completely unique and special sound. "People on Drugs" pairs a gorgeous psychedelic stoner beat with Awol's groaning club meditations to perfection, and "Never Gonna Take Us Out" provides a needed boost of energy with Awol's raps and Ceschi's hook. Still, there a couple of generic beats and a few songs where Awol's vocal direction doesn't really work that well, leaving this experimental album a mixed bag. It was impossible for me not to include it in this listing after seeing Awol One and Ceschi's stellar show at Elbo Room though, anyone who has the opportunity to see them live on tour should get on that right away! My favorite song from the album below:

There were a couple of other interesting albums that came out this month, such as Enemy Entropist's "Never...Go...Gentle" and Murs & Terrace Martin's "Melrose," though I have yet to hear more than a leak of the latter. February left us with a couple of gems for sure.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Awol One & Factor, Ceschi & Anonymous Inc., Cars & Trains, Kirby Dominant, Megabusive and Abadawn at the Elbo Room, San Francisco

View From the Front Row, 2/23/11

Last night, I went and saw Awol One & Factor's Landmark Tour featuring the likes of Ceschi, Cars & Trains, Kirby Dominant, Megabusive and Abadawn at the Elbo Room in San Francisco. This show was part of the Farmer's Block series that Qwel & Maker were part of last year, which means that in addition to the music there was some art up on display and some vegan foods for sale. I tried a vegan flauta thing which was not bad and a peanut butter cupcake which was good, but refrained from spending any money on art and put down the bucks on a far cheaper rum and coke instead. The nature of the event drew a slightly larger crowd than I'm used to seeing at the Elbo Room, though Ceschi has always had a good draw of people when he's performed in the Bay Area so no surprises there.

Abadawn was the opener, with DJ Zone backing him up behind the boards. I hadn't heard any of Abadawn's music previously, but had heard from a friend that he put on a good show and knew of him through his Camobear Records affiliation. Well, I'm not sure if this was just an off-night for Abadawn, but to put it bluntly: I thought he sucked! It seemed like he was trying way too hard to impress the crowd with his rapping and stage antics, and didn't have the skills or originality necessary to make anyone care. To make matters worse, he seemed very indecisive about what tracks he wanted to play, and frequently performed only a minute of a song before deciding to switch into another one. It seems like Abadawn's crazy frat-boy personality is what draws people to his music, but yelling into a microphone and kicking your shoes off on stage shouldn't be the summation of your performance. Bad set.

Megabusive was up next, and I was very curious to hear what he had to bring to the table. I remember hearing some of Megabusive's songs a long time ago, back when Atmosphere and Aesop Rock were just coming out of the shadows and LA's scene had a ton of stylistic super-groups, but to my knowledge he hasn't dropped anything in years. Fortunately, it seemed like the flow and performing skills that Megabusive honed all those years back were still in tact, and he put on a great set of his signature oddball cadence and weird lo-fi beats. Megabusive really knew how to handle himself on stage, mixing his precise flow and intelligent lyrics with goofy dance maneuvers and personal interjections. Super good set, here's hoping that he has some new material dropping in the not-too-distant future.

Kirby Dominant took the stage next, and brought out his homie Boss One as a hype man/rhyming partner. They were both fresh-dressed in typical Kirby fashion, and implored the white people to all make their way to the front. Once there were a couple more people up close, Kirby explained that his set was gonna be improvised on an empty canvas, where he'd add one little brush stroke and then see where the picture would take him from there. Needless to say, Kirby Dominant and Boss One both killed it with a super impressive set loaded with energy, ill flows, comedy and pimp-ish personalities. Kirby performed a couple of his older songs that established him as a Bay Area legend, as well as a few of his collaborative tracks with Factor (who was also backing him behind the boards). If there was anything wrong with Kirby's set, it's that not nearly enough people in the Elbo Room cared. He kicked some seriously sick dance jams and some awesome stylistic flow tracks while not even half of the crowd was paying attention. Goddamn shame... terrific set.

Cars & Trains offered a change of pace to the evening's music with a short set of improvised acoustic music and electronics. He apologized to the crowd in advance, explaining that the "mutant potatoes of Idaho" had eaten most of his equipment, and proceeded to play a soft set of sung guitar ballads and sound-looping. At one point, Ceschi's brother David Ramos, a surprise guest of the evening, came out and played drums for one of Cars & Trains numbers, which worked well. I'm not a particularly huge fan of Cars & Trains' music, but it was an interesting and pretty well-executed set, especially considering the improvisational nature of it all.

Ceschi was the act that I was anticipating the most, since over the years he's proven that he's one of the more interesting and eclectic indie rap acts to see live. Ceschi's music has an unpredictable range to it, and can move from folk singing to crunk speed rap in the blink of an eye. This time around, Ceschi was accompanied by his group Anonymous Inc, which includes his brother David Ramos on drums/extra rapping and their buddy Max Heath on keyboards/laptop/various instruments. The live band aspect of the show had the various performers leaning more towards the rock and electronic sides of the music spectrum, which was nice, but things really started picking up when Ceschi and his brother moved away from their instruments and started rapping. They kicked tracks like "Hangman" and "Half-Mast" from Ceschi's last album, and broke into an extremely impressive and all-out offensive speed rap song from their mock crunk group Knuck Feast. Other highlights of the set included an interesting electro pop tune crafted by Max Heath that had him singing, and a really excellent live band rendition of Ceschi's song "Black and White and Red All Over." All of the performers did their damn things and left the crowd reeling. Really great stuff.

Awol One & Factor came out next as the evening's headliners, and they put on such a perfect set that I was practically beside myself in joy. I wasn't expecting anything that spectacular since Awol's music, while interesting and original, is not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of live hip hop shows. The last time I saw Awol One solo at Element Lounge, it was pretty cool but about what one would expect when listening to his bugged out music. This time around, it was absolutely fucking brilliant from beginning to end, and stood out as the best performance in an evening full of great performances. Awol's deep voice and weird moan-singing style were so on-point through every song that there was kind of a magical vibe of appreciation and happiness in the air. The crowd felt it and Awol One felt it. Too many stand-outs to name, but he performed mostly songs from the three Awol One & Factor albums, leaving a few of his older classics saved for the very end. A risky decision, but one that paid off extremely well. "Celebrate" was played flawlessly with twitchy little dance moves, "Old Babies" was enough to send chills down people's spines, "People on Drugs" and "Perfect Opposites" showed off Awol's most recent material super well. Ceschi was brought up to the stage for rowdy renditions of "Never Gonna Take Us Out" and "Way Back Then," with Awol sadly singing a hilarious acapella song at one point about how the ladies ultimately prefer Ceschi. Awol pulled out a giant inflatable boombox for a couple of his final numbers, which included the classic "Sleepin' All Day" and of course "Rhythm." There were a few Shapeshifters fans from Sydney, Australia who flew out for the show that were straight bugging out over how well Awol One was performing. The set closed with Awol doing a sing-a-long version of "We Are the Champions" that had everyone in the audience raising their hands to the air. It was an absolutely awesome set that raised my appreciation for the man and his music a couple more notches. Terrific show!

Here's a video I took of Awol One performing my favorite track from his new album, "People on Drugs":

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Atmosphere is Showing Off Again

The Latest Greatest, 2/22/11

So, "Just for Show," the first single off of Atmosphere's new album "The Family Sign," has just dropped courteousy of Rhymesayers Entertainment. I've only had a chance to give it one listen so far, but my ears couldn't be more pleased. Smooth reggae-funk riffs, Slug's everyman flow, and some thoughtful lyrics. Sounds like they're working off the initial blueprint set for "To All My Friends" and just fleshing it out more into stand-out songs. My anticipation for the album just went up a notch. April 12th people. Tracklisting and stream-able single below:

1) My Key
2) The Last to Say
3) Became
4) Just For Show
5) She's Enough
6) Bad Bad Daddy
7) Millenium Dodo
8) Who I'll Never Be
9) I Don't Need Brighter Days
10) Ain't Nobody
11) Your Name Here
12) If You Can Save Me Now
13) Something So
14) My Notes

Atmosphere - Just For Show by rhymesayers

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Busdriver, Dark Time Sunshine, Understudies, Max Bundles and Grand Lodge at the Stork Club, Oakland CA

View From the Front Row, 2/17/11

The other night, I went and saw the latest Busdriver tour featuring Dark Time Sunshine, Understudies and Max Bundles at the Stork Club in Oakland. I've visited the Stork Club many times in the past, but it's mainly been for seeing rock bands that my friends are part of and this was the first rap show that I've attended there. I was a little worried the turn-out wouldn't be great since the show was announced about a week in advance after the Nevada City date got canceled, but Spencer aka Citizen of the Understudies was on point with the promotions and the crowd was about 10 times larger than when I saw Dark Time Sunshine at Shattuck Downlow (admittedly, it was just me and a friend in attendance at that one, but still!). Included in the crowd were a couple of cool rap folks who came out to support the homies, like Doseone and Karim of Boom Bap Project. Of course, while the Stork is a very nice intimate venue, they're hardly on the high-end of the club spectrum and they somehow managed to overbook the show with a random indie rock act that was also supposed to be performing. So the indie rock band took the stage first, and the hip hop guys performed after.

The indie rock band in question was a group by the name of Grand Lodge, who were all well-dressed and had a lead vocalist that looked kind of like Jason Schwartzman in 'Hotel Chevalier"... Their music was kind of your typical keyboard-y guitar-y soft rock, and didn't seem to draw people's attention. I had secret beef with them over the fact that some of my friends have a rock band called Grand Lake, but kept the hate to myself and watched them from the front row to give them at least one spectator. The keyboardist was super appreciative of my presence, and later rocked out in the front row for the Understudies out of respect.

The first rapper type to play was Max Bundles, who took the stage with two of his buddies whose names had a "freeze" and a "Mr." in them (word of advice to fledgling rappers: choose original monikers that we'll remember!). I hadn't heard of Max Bundles before, but he's an MC from Sacramento who seems like a nice guy and who has backing from Josh Martinez's label Camobear Records, which raises some interest in my book. He rapped with a good degree of confidence and stage presence over his short set of 4 or 5 songs, though his cohorts failed to stand out as much. Max Bundles' short but sweet opening set kind of made up for Grand Lodge's overextended performance.

Bay Area's own Understudies came out next to rock the house, and rock the house they did with a clear contender for best set of the evening, and a definite candidate for funnest set of the night. Citizen, Sean E Depp and Gee all brought the energy, style and good vibes necessary to make a rap set entertaining, engaging and straight-up fun. There were not as many people grooving out in the front as the last time I saw the Understudies play at Blake's opening for Afro Classics, but a couple of their buddies and even a few fans and other musicians got up to get down to their songs. No small feat considering the general self-conscious vibe that seems to permeate underground hip hop shows. The Understudies played a couple of new songs including their recent "Remember Me" track produced by Digital Martyrs, and a couple of live standards like "Move" and "Things Ain't." Great set that I had a blast dancing to.

Dark Time Sunshine were the next group to perform, and the talented producer Zavala kicked things off with some very impressive beat manipulation that demonstrated how well he's mastered his craft. Unfortunately, Dark Time Sunshine still seems to lack a certain flair when it comes to their live show. As amazing as their recorded material is, I think they still have some difficulty translating the excitement of those recordings to a live setting. Onry Ozzborn seemed just as stoic and uninterested as the last time I saw him at Shattuck Downlow, and the set was a little on the boring side overall. Strangely, the tracks that Onry became most animated for were the two songs he performed from his most recent solo album, though even in those songs he didn't match up to stage skills of Busdriver or Understudies. Not all that great a set.

Busdriver was the final performer of the evening, and he put on a train-wreck (bus-wreck?) of a set that was still super impressive and actually one of the more entertaining performances I've seen from Busdriver in a minute. He came out looking very tired, moaned a bit about budgetary restraints, got his many pieces of equipment working helf-decently in the Stork Club's less-than-stellar sound system, and proceeded to do his damn thing and kick some sick styles in true Project Blowed fashion. The beat machines didn't always produce the sounds he wanted and there were points where he stumbled over lines, but he improvised over every hiccup in his set and threw down some truly awesome freestyles and switch-ups. Some of these variations may have been calculated, but for the most part it seemed as though he was truly saving his set through his raw skills as an MC. Either way, it was one of the most unpredictable and fun Busdriver set I've seen in a while. Very cool show overall.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Who Grieves on Valentines Day?

The Latest Greatest, 2/14-ish/11

Here's a little Valentine-related music video from Grieves & Budo for you lonely love birds out there. I'm assuming that this "Pack It Up" song is going to be available on their "Together/Apart" album, which is going to be dropping on Rhymesayers some time this Summer. Budo is one talented mo'fo and I'm liking the way he's incorporating more horn into his songs these days. The Grieves cameo at the bar in this vid is cool as well,

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Gangsta Goddess Prophecy?

The Latest Greatest, 2/12/11

*Blink.* As hard as this may be to believe, Medusa is apparently releasing her full length album "Whr's the DJ Booth?" on Myka 9's label M9 Entertainment in the very near future. How near is the very near future? Valentine's Day, says Medusa - the day after tomorrow! Don't quote me on that date since I have yet to see a tracklisting or official cover for this near mythical album, but there is a sampler of snippets available for listening Here so it's definitely coming. Medusa is a colossal talent of the LA underground, with an absolutely killer live show and no proper album under her name to date... I know people who have been waiting for a Medusa long player for over a decade. Here's hoping that J the Sarge isn't all over this one as he has been on so many M9 releases. My gut feeling is that this album may end up being a disappointment, but I'm optimistic never the less! Definitely giving this a listen when it drops.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

More Details Emerge From the Void

The Latest Greatest, 2/10/11

Void Pedal's "Omni-Colour" is dropping February 22nd on Fieldwerk Recordings. My rap radars indicate that it's one of the more promising releases on this month and that it'll be one of the most exciting instrumental projects in recent memory. Those who haven't downloaded Void Pedal's free self-titled EP need to get caught up ASAP here. "Omni-Colour" tracklisting and stream-able singles below:

1A Place In The Sun

2Rainbow God


4Night-time Butterfly


6Looking Glass

7Spiral Ease

8Should All Be Perfect

9Blue Items

10Let It Fall

11Choke You

12Ace Tone


Void Pedal - Looking Glass by fieldwerk

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Dollar Bin Jewels: Knonam Edition

The Lowdown, 2/10/11

So in my many years of shopping at California's trio of Amoeba Record stores, I have spent a good deal of time digging through their super cheap clearance bins in search of the occasional odd gem. These days, those bins will mostly be a mix of great obscure underground stuff that I already own and complete crap that I wouldn't touch with a yard stick, but ever so often there will come a rare moment when I'll discover something that looks kind of interesting that I haven't really heard of before. Most of the time, those risky purchases end up being disappointing or even unlistenable, but once in a while I'll really luck out. Since it's a rare enough occurrence, I figure I'll document some of those finds here.

I picked up Knonam's 2008 album "Length of the Blade" on a whim at Amoeba San Francisco a few days ago for about two bucks. The 80s-inspired album cover stood out a bit amongst the shitty covers crowding the clearance bin, and I seemed to remember someone bringing his name up in a discussion about Minnesota hip hop, which has been an area of interest of mine for the last few years. Anyway, it turns out this album is the most impressive clearance bin discovery I've made since I bought Debaser's "Crown Control" album from the Amoeba Berkeley bins a few years back. Knonam has not only a strong flow, but also some seriously good song-writing ability, with an obvious understanding on how to hold people's attention with a story or pen a catchy hook. He also produced all of the beats on "Length of the Blade," and the music is a surprisingly great tribute to 80s samples and synth lines, which gives the project an element of originality.

Stream-able below is the title track off of "Length of the Blade," which is my personal favorite song on the album and a great example of Knonam's talents. The eerily familiar creeping 80s guitar riff in the background sets the stage for two of Knonam's extremely personal life stories, which are tied together through an excellent hook. Give it a listen and check this guy's stuff out if you get a chance!

Find more artists like KNONAM at Myspace Music

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Diggin' the Dirt

The Latest Greatest, 2/6/11

Brand new album from West coast O.G Joe Dub's group Contra Band on the way, entitled "Praise Dirt." Contra Band consists of Joe Dub on the rhymes, AC75 (a.k.a Alex75) on the beats, and DJ Marz handling the cuts. No official release date or track list for this yet, but the album is said to feature West coast heavy weights like Hugh EMC, Ellay Khule, Eddie K and even a West Coast Workforce reunion. As if that didn't sound appetizing enough, the awesome cover artwork pictured above was handled by none other than Pedro Bell of Parliament/Funkadelic fame! Joe Dub's been holding it down for years and has rarely disappointed, so I'm really looking forward to this. No official leaks from it yet, but you can listen to a track called "Electronic World" off of a 7" that Contra Band put out last year below. The song features some interesting about the age of Information Technology, and a guest spot from none other than Devin the Dude:

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Hieroglyphics Live at Upper Sproul Plaza, UC Berkeley

View Near the Front Row, 2/5/11

A few nights ago, I went and saw the legendary Hieroglyphics crew do a free(!) show over at UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza. I learned about the show the evening before it happened, when I spotted a flier taped to a pole with the Hiero logo on it and blinked my way through the info in disbelief. Despite the low key promotional roll out for this event, the turn out was pretty damn huge, with Sproul Plaza and its surrounding buildings teeming with curious Berkeley students and long-time Hiero fans. The info on the flier said to arrive early due to the lack of opening acts, but of course the 5:00 PM start time shifted to 5:40 PM, at which point Hiero got an opening act to kill some time for them on stage.

The opener, Knobody, was a Bay Area MC loosely affiliated to Hieroglyphics through their record label, which I suppose makes him a sort of unofficial member of the clique. He was a decent enough performer, and got the excited Hiero fans in the crowd chanting along to some of his hooks. Nothing about his music struck me as particularly exciting, but he didn't completely bore me or irritate me either. He only did a few tracks, and not long after that Hieroglyphics took the stage to perform.

I'd seen a number of the MCs in Hieroglyphics perform live before on an individual basis, but this was my first time seeing them all together as a collective unit and also my first time seeing Del or Casual play live. I'm not really as die-hard a Hiero fan as a lot of Bay Area heads, but I definitely appreciate their body of work and really love a couple of their key songs and projects. Out of the performers at this particular show, I thought that Tajai and Pep Love were the most impressive. Tajai was incredibly animated and having a ball on stage, barreling through his verses with effortless ease and often tackling and clowning on his Hiero fam mid-verse. Pep Love was probably the most consistent as far as the quality of his verses goes, with his immaculate cadence and flow never missing a beat. Phesto was also strong in this regard, and had a surprisingly large amount of mic time. Casual did a few solo numbers that showcased his unconventional style, though he didn't have quite as aggressive a stage presence as I thought he might. Del Tha Funky Homosapien was a bit of mixed bag to me as well, though it partially had to do with his mic not working that well for part of his performance. He kicked some of his old standards, including "Virus" from Deltron 3030, but also had to go into a rendition of 'Clint Eastwood" that made me roll my eyes a bit. Opio and A-Plus were both pretty great but had very few verses compared to the other MCs, which kind of highlighted the lack of many major posse cuts over the course of the set. Fortunately, Souls of Mischief did perform a couple of numbers, including a very rousing rendition of "93' Till Infinity" to finish off the set with. It got just as great a crowd reaction as when I saw them play at Slim's a few months back... no Hiero set is complete without that song. Good show from Hiero, well worth the free admission!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Open Mike Eagle "Art Rap After Party EP"

Expanding the Backpack, 2/3/11

Need to pull out my extra, extra late pass for blogging about this one, but when this EP was offered as a free download last year, it was advertised as a limited-time-only freebie. I always figured it would drop in some purchasable format and that I'd write about it then, but seeing how the link for it is still in tact and how there is no sign of any other sort of release of it on the near horizon, I figured this early month of 2011 would be as good a time as any to share it. Open Mike Eagle is a cool MC from the new school Project Blowed group Swim Team, and this short look into his music is a good introduction to his interesting approach and style. The EP has a lot of quality jammed into its 20 minute running time, and features the stand-out track "Haircut," which is probably the funnest Open Mike Eagle song to see live. Tracklisting below. No idea about the production credits, if anyone has them handy hit me up!

1. Everbody's Birthday
2. Haircut
3. Someplace Quiet
4. Four Years Old
5. Last Night

Download available via the Mush Records website.