Wednesday, June 29, 2011

June 2K11 in Hip Hop Terms

The Lowdown, 6/29/11

A ton of great music this month. I've been swamped in ill beats and rhymes, with one album after another trying to scratch its way up to the top of my current rotation. Impossible to write a thorough review for all of them and harder still to pick which ones merit the most attention, but these're amongst the top of the pile for me:

1) Gel Roc & Xczircles "Beautiful Tragedy" (Abolano Records)

My vote for the best hip hop release in June 2011's colossal line-up is Gel Roc & Xczircles new collaboration "Beautiful Tragedy," which stands out as some of the strongest material by all parties involved and is one of the most solid pieces of underground West Coast hip hop you're likely to hear this year. Gel Roc has been holding it down in the Cali underground circuit for years as a member of EX2 as well as a solo artist, and has appeared on many a respected LA rappers' album (ask around). Xczircles has a similar track record as a member of the mysterious abstract Cali group Escape Artists, and has a fair share of dope solo projects under his belt such as his underrated instrumental album "The Purge" and recent split solo effort with Aamir "Swan Storm / The Quiet Before the Storm." The combined forces of Gel Roc and Xczircles have resulted in an album that truly deviates from the norm, and sounds like nothing else out there right now. On a first listen through "Beautiful Tragedy," I was caught off-guard by how unusual most of it sounded. A lot of the album has a spoken word-ish quality to it, with very strange minimal beats that incorporate experimental jazz horns and have a dark, brooding atmosphere. Gel Roc holds his own over the course of the album, but also gets help from a number of the LA underground's finest MCs, who make some very significant contributions to the mix. Awol One's gruff vocals and drug raps fit the raw mix of "Buzzin Cuzzins" well, Abstract Rude delivers some memorable verses over the traditional boom bap of the title track "Beautiful Tragedy," and Ecid stands out with his impressive lyrics and cadence on "Corporate Indecline." The album reaches its grand finale with the epic posse cut "Tragic Poetry," where no less than 15 notable stylistic spitters drop some seriously ill verses. Hard to cherry pick the highlights of this song, but the segment where Lord Zen, Kail, Neila and Zagu Brown murder it one after another holds a special spot in my heart. The verses from Longevity and Open Mike Eagle on that song are no joke either. The only minor problem with this album might be it's 74 minute length, which is long for any album, but then again it's hard to come up with a weak track to drop from here. A massive experimental opus that should not be missed! Listen to the title track below:

2) Co$$ "Before I Awoke" (Tres)

On the other end of Los Angeles' bubbling underground circuit is Co$$'s debut album "Before I Awoke," which somehow manages to rep Leimert Park to the fullest without associating itself to Project Blowed. While Co$$'s singles left me skeptical as to whether I'd want to listen to an entire album of him rapping, I've got to tip my hat here and say that "Before I Awoke" is one hell of a solid body of work. The entire album succeeds in the way that it flaunts its left-coast atmosphere with pride, pitting Co$$'s smooth vocals over a variety of interesting instrumentals that veer from dope jazz breaks to more gutter electro productions. Though the moods of the songs differ from track to track, it's the unified West Coast vibe of this album that makes it such an enjoyable listen, and fans of Blu and Exile (both of whom appear on this, along with Aloe Blacc and Sene) will find a lot to smile and nod their head to here. Co$$'s voice and flow are often more interesting to examine and listen to than his lyrics, though he does cover a couple of interesting topics on the album and goes into an anti-organized religion tirade on the last few songs. The only problem with "Before I Awoke" is that, much like Gel Roc's album, it clocks in at 74 minutes and probably could have used a bit of trimming (the 3 bonus songs could have definitely been dropped, for example). Still, this is a great chill West Coast hip hop album that's be getting some serious spins throughout the Summer. Listen to "In the Wind" for a taste of the vibes that Co$$ is bringin' below:

3) Acid Reign "Diversity" (Uncommon)

Some real excellent stylings from BeOnd and Gajah on their new album "Diversity," which stands out as one of the grimiest and strongest Acid Reign recordings to date. The eclectic arrangement of different sounds and producers on this project looks like a mess on paper, but it really comes together in the way that Gajah and BeOnd use the diversity of the beats to flip tons of interesting styles and awesome concepts. It's pretty much a given that these dudes can rap their asses off if you've ever listened to their music or seen them live, but I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of sick lyrics and concepts that Acid Reign drop on this one. "Fantastic 4" has the duo teaming up with Neila and Myka 9 to kick some intergalactic superhero raps, with each adopting the personality of one of the 4, while "Devil's Talk" has BeOnd and Gajah talking themselves out of making deals with the Devil. Elsewhere, songs like "Total Control" and the title cut "Diversity" are more grounded in reality, dealing with the importance of having control over one's life and the diversity of people respectively. One thing I'm disappointed about in this album is the way that Uncommon Records handled the packaging... you'd think that Acid Reign would be one of Uncommon's flagship artists given the roster, and that they'd merit more than a CDR in a slipcase with a giant Uncommon Records logo crowding the CD sticker. Having said that, the cover is dope, as is the music. Check out the "Creme de la Blowed" posse cut featuring Nga Fsh, Aceyalone, Rifleman, Olmeca, Abstract Rude and Myka 9 below:

4) K-the-I??? "Synesthesia" (Fake Four Inc.)

The latest album from K-the-I??? is possibly his most daring and abrasive piece of work to date, which is no joke considering how daring and abrasive Kiki's albums tend to me. I've mainly come to know K-the-I??? for his aggressive off-beat style of rapping, but he doesn't utter a word on this album and strictly sticks to crafting complex beats that sound like a bunch of musical genres pounded to a pulp through button-mashing madness. I've always gotten the sense that K-the-I??? has rapped his verses in a way that deliberately pulls people out of their comfort zones, and I get a similar sense of K-the-I??? as a producer. His ear leans towards the unusual and unsettling end of the music spectrum, and the stuttering blend of musical styles on "Synesthesia" feels unified under his strange outlook on beats. One of the stranger and stronger Fake Four instrumental projects to date. You can hear "Moonwalking on Venticular Clouds" below:

K-The-I??? "Moon Walking On Lenticular Clouds" by Fake Four, Inc.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Candy's Got a Brand New Gun

The Latest Greatest, 6/28/11

So apparently, according to Stereo13 aka Existereo's blog, the newish-oldish Candy's .22 album "A Girl and Her Gun" is officially available for sale digitally on iTunes. This kind of snuck out of nowhere and is mostly an official reissuing of songs from "On the Roadkill Again," but it's an album I've patiently waited for for some time and I'm happy to see that it's finally available in some way shape or form. If you're unfamiliar with the collaborative work of Existereo (Shapeshifters) and Barfly (Oldominion), feel free to familiarize yourself below. Essential listening for those who like their hip hop on the extra weird/extra drunk side. No word on whether this is going to be pressed up on CD or wax, but I've got my fingers crossed. I see you, Grimm Image.

"Sux to be the Best"

"Alone" (produced by Factor)

"Streetlights Shine"

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Justus Bends, F. Stokes, Rec League & Rime Force Most Illin' at Red Devil Lounge, SF

View From the Front Row, 6/25/11

June has definitely been a strange month as far as live hip hop goes. While May offered up more full-fledged rap line-ups than I could shake a keyboard at, June was more like a tiny smattering of short but sweet sets by artists that I enjoy. A little Rime Force Most Illin here (on the 3rd floor of a Bank of America building, oddly), a little Megabusive there (closing out a poorly timed night at Club 6). There were some real quality performances, but they were spread out to the point where I found it tricky to do a complete write-up of anything on this here blog. But fear not, for the most recent show I went to at Red Devil Lounge was not only a complete rap show, but also the funnest full-fledged rap show I've been to in a minute.

While Rec League are my dudes and have never put on a bad show, the act that caught my attention and made me wanna roll out was F. Stokes, a Chi-town rapper known for his work with Doomtree's Lazerbeak. In fact, when this secret show was originally announced, it was just advertising Justus Bends and F. Stokes... Rime Force Most Illin' and Rec League were the extra-secret surprises of this secret show, and only announced their presence the night before it went down.

Part of the reason that this show rocked so hard was the crowd. There was lots of love between fellow hip hop heads and it was one of the least self-conscious crowds I've been a part of in a minute, with plenty of folks dancing and filming and laughing and drinking and just plain enjoying themselves. It was also the bartender Anna's birthday, and a lot of the acts and people in attendance were celebrating and showing her a huge amount of love. There were dance circles and excited cheering before any of the live acts even got on stage, largely thanks to the DJ (whose name I think was Bad DJ?) who was spinning strictly classic hip hop jams that had people chanting along.

Rime Force Most Illin' were the first act to take the stage, and they really set it off with a show loaded with energy and old school Cali hip hop vibes. Rob Rush (Rec League) and Luke Sick (Sacred Hoop) have got some nice chemistry going on in this new group, plus their hooks and approach are just as big a throwback to golden era hip hop as their collaborative stage name. Lots of ill flows, B-boy stances, rugged Cali vocals and chant-along hooks. Apparently, Rime Force Most Illin' might be showing up at more rap shows out of the blue to blow the roof off of spots as an unexpected opening act. And for the record, They Get the Most Props! Headliners better step their games up. Now holla like ya know.

After a short but thoroughly entertaining set from Rime Force Most Illin', Richie Cunning and QM got up on stage to support Rob Rush as Rec League. They put on an awesome show of drinking anthems backed by the occasional party anthem and dance anthem in traditional Rec League fashion. Richie Cunning was wearing medical braces on his pinky fingers from some accident that he refused to talk about, and he had the crowd hold up their pinky fingers for his performance of "One Dollar Wonder." The whole set was like a crash course in the way that Rec League brings it live, with lots of insane energy and stage presence making up for any hiccups in the verses of their relentless set. A Happy Birthday was sung to Anna, and Rob Rush rolled through his infamous shirtless dance routine that always drives the crowd into a frenzy. Rob's boss from the company he works for was in the crowd near the front, and was busting out crazy dance moves. A really ill performance from these guys, as always!

F. Stokes was on to play next, and he delivered a very strange but thoroughly enjoyable and memorable performance. Manned with only a microphone and a laptop, F. Stokes was determined to make a personal connection with the crowd and get them involved with his songs. He spit many of his songs acappella so that the crowd could hear every word, which was a risky decision after a hype set like Rec League's, but it worked well for the most part thanks to his excellent lyrics. F. Stokes really got into the crowd and showed a lot of people love over the course of his set. He went behind the bar at one point to give Anna a major hug, prompting the crowd to sing Happy Birthday to her once again. He had the entire crowd sit down so he could kick a personal verse over the instrumental to the theme music from "Titanic." He brought a rowdy dude from the crowd nicknamed J-Eazy on stage to be his hype man for "Hang On" since the guy was causing a scene and F. Stokes didn't want him kicked out of the venue. He also pulled me up on stage at one point to teach me how to "high five hug" in a demonstration to the rest of the crowd that had a number of people joining hands. And throughout all of these personal touches, F. Stokes rapped and rapped well. There were a few awkward moments, like when he attempted the impossible task of trying to silence the crowd by telling everyone to say "shhh" to the person next to them, but it was an awesome set overall that's sure to go down in the books for its uniqueness.

Justus Bends came on after F. Stokes as the headliner of the evening, which struck me as kind of strange since he was the one act I hadn't heard of. To be honest, I was caught-up in chatting with some of the heads in attendance during his set and didn't pay much attention to it... but then, a really good show tends to demand your attention, and there was nothing that demanded my attention in Justus Bends' performance. The only bit I remember was a nasally white dude on stage dropping the word "swag" in his verse, which made me tune it out more. Meh, can't win'em all!

Super fun show overall! Good times for sure.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Oldominion Continues to Bring the Heat

The Lowdown, 6/22/11

In my not so recent write-up of May's rap releases (or lack thereof), I defaulted on listing anticipated albums that hadn't dropped yet and mentioned that I hadn't heard Iame or Destro's albums yet. Well, now that I own said albums and have given them a number of listens, I have to say that these are two very solid pieces of work that stand out as the best hip hop releases of May by far. They're also some of the year's stronger hip hop releases, and really show off Oldominion's staggering level of quality as of late. So, as to not neglect these excellent pieces of music, here are some words on a blog:

1) Iame "Lame" (Taxidermy)

Iame has been releasing slept-on albums for years as a member of Seattle's two most respected crews, Sandpeople and Oldominion. His new album "Lame" is his strongest and most conceptual work to date, playing off of the way that many promoters have misprinted his name on flyers by examining his life as a "lame" underground rapper. Iame's voice and flow are more relaxed and confident than ever on this album, and his introspective lyrics cover a wide variety of original topics, including his domesticated lifestyle and the trials of his house cat. My favorite part of the album is the production, which is handled entirely by Oldominion's key producer Smoke M2D6. I think this album represents some of Smoke's finest work to date, as it carries that classic dark Seattle hip hop sound that Oldominion has become known for while delivering a variety of moods and staying cohesive the whole way through. Lots of terrific standout songs. My personal favorites are probably the haunting closing melodies of "What Kind Are You?," which showcases excellent verses from Smoke and Xperience, and the two part examination of religion "Thy Will / The.ism," where Toni Hill and XP both aid Iame on the soulful hooks. The whole project is solid as hell though, and is a damn fine way to be introduced to both Iame's excellent MCing and Smoke's excellent beats. "Lame" indeed. Title track below:

2) Destro "Ill.ustrated" (Vinyl Fluid Records)

One of the founding members of Oldominion holds it down on his solo debut. Destro is best known as 1/2 of the Seattle group Boom Bap Project, who released a couple of excellent albums of traditional hip hop music with production from the likes of Jake One and Vitamin D plus backing from Rhymesayers Ent. Fans of the Boom Bap Project albums will find a lot to enjoy on "Ill.ustrated," as Destro's taste in beats definitely leans towards the same kind of ill choppy boom bap found on those projects. While the style and traditional hip hop aesthetic are fully intact, Destro branches into more personal territory on this album with some of his strongest lyrics to date, touching upon the trials of growing up on "Just a Dream" and the responsibilities of being a father on "Together." He also weaves a good story on "Mr. Brown," and flexes some impressive cadences on the closing number "Oldominion Coming Through" with Sleep and Gold. And speaking of guest rappers, extra high marks here go to Vursatyl for his verse on "Eat'Em Up," which is straight-up one of the best verses I've ever heard from him! Check out the Mr. Hill produced "Sleep When I'm Dead" song below:

Find more artists like Destro at Myspace Music

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Cloudy October "The Aviator is Dead EP"

Expanding the Backpack, 6/8/11

Late-pass on this one, but just learned about this guy's music recently and wanted to share this free EP of his for those who haven't heard it. Cloudy October is an MC/producer from Portland, OR that makes rap music that he describes as "Andre' from Outkast meets Aesop Rock in Molecular Science Class." The beats and rhymes on this EP are surprisingly great, with Cloudy October's flow fitting well over his polished organ and harp-based production. This guy was recently signed to the Chicago-based instrumental hip hop label Fieldwerk Records, who already have a rep for great releases and who'll be putting out Cloudy's new one "The Metal Jerk" in the Fall. Cloudy October is currently touring across the West coast with Onry Ozzborn, Iame, and Void Pedal as part of the "Hold on for Dear Life" tour. Stream "The Aviator is Dead" below or download it for free here, plus peep the music video and tour dates lower down while you're at it:

Music video for "Lowerface":

Tour dates with Onry Ozzborn, Iame and Void Pedal:

June 8, 2011
Sacramento, CA at Blue Lamp

June 9, 2011
Woodland, CA at The Stag

June 10, 2011
Reno, NV at Tonic Lounge

June 11, 2011
S. Lake Tahoe at Whiskey Dicks

June 14, 2011
San Diego, CA at Kava Lounge

June 16, 2011
Yuma, AZ at Dunes Bar

June 18, 2011
Tempe, AZ at Red Owl

June 19, 2011
Las Vegas, NV at Daddy Mac's

June 21, 2011
Albuquerque, NM at Moonlight Lounge

June 22, 2011
Cortez, CO at Blondie's

June 23, 2011
Farmington, NM at Pavillion/McGee Park

June 24, 2011
Colorado Springs, CO at The Black Sheep

June 25, 2011
Denver, CO at Funky Buddah Lounge

June 29, 2011
Salt Lake City, UT at Bar Deluxe

June 30, 2011
Boise, ID at The Reef

July 1, 2011
Bozeman, MT at The Zebra Lounge

July 2, 2011
Mill Creek, WA at The Jet