Sunday, February 12, 2017

Street Lamps: Hip Hop in the Dark Ages

Mural by Retna.

The Trumpacolyptic Revelations of Amerikkka

Since the Trumpocalypse began, most of the world has been mired in despair, confusion, and uncertainty. The highest office in the land, the most powerful position atop the most powerful country in the world, has been handed over to a capricious billionaire whose most ardent supporters include the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis. To make matters worse, he quickly loaded up his cabinet with all manner of ghoulish racists, white nationalists, and billionaire bankers. The last few months have felt like the scene in Ghostbusters where the prick from the city inspector's office pries open the containment unit opening the floodgates for an overwhelming stream of ghosts and demons. Somehow this is reality.

During this period of darkness, I've found there are very few indulgences that make sense within this context, few things that really feel right. Thomas Pynchon makes sense. So I read Vineland, the paranoid novel inspired by the fearful proto-fascism of Nixon and Reagan. Philip K. Dick makes sense. So I've checked out the new series The Man In the High Castle based on his novel, a bizarre scenario envisioning America if the Nazis and Japan had won World War II.

And, above all: Hip Hop makes sense. Hip Hop feels right during these times.

Not unlike the oddly reassuring Dave Chapelle appearance on SNL immediately after the election, where the message was basically that this latest travesty of hatred and racism is nothing new, I've found myself retreating into Hip Hop (real Hip Hop, not the fake shit) where the message has always been that the system is corrupt, racist, deceitful, and predatory. From the early days of Public Enemy, KRS-One, and Ice Cube on through Wu-Tang, Immortal Technique, Dead Prez, and Mos Def, the message has remained the same. Things didn't change with Obama in office. The drug war persists, the prison industrial complex grows, police brutality worsens, poverty lingers, and black disenfranchisement continues.

Back in 2011, as demonstrations were erupting around the world leading to what became the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, I wrote a review of the debut album from the late Kevlaar 7, Who Got the Camera?, a scathing sociopolitical wake-up call. I opened by quoting Ezra Pound who said "The artist is the antenna of the race, the barometer and voltmeter" and Marshall McLuhan who saw art "at its most significant, as a DEW line, a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.” In Trumpocalyptic America, many are wondering who could've seen this coming, how could we have let this happen, how can America (or Amerikkka) really be this racist. Well, the answer is that true artists, in America's case, Hip Hop artists who have their antennas up, have been warning us of this for many years.

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Modern-Tech Priest

In the immediate aftermath of the Trumpocalypse, I found myself magnetically attracted to the newer works of Killah Priest, the shaman of Wu-Tang, for relief. From his earliest work, Priest has displayed a sweeping perspective of historical events and their affect on the present, memorably declaring back in '98 that "The white image of Christ is really Cesare Borgia." That was back on Heavy Mental where he also had a track, "Information," perfectly describing our current surveillance state. In fact, he flat out stated, "Our telephone conversations will be automatically wiretapped and transcripted by the National Security Agency" more than 15 years before Edward Snowden.

Priest's style has evolved since then, adding accretions of expanded imagination, futuristic perspective, and strands of humor to his vast historical knowledge, poetic wisdom, and foresight. His two latest albums have been feasts of lyrical imagination and creativity. The tour de force double LP The Psychic World of Walter Reed (2013) showcased his newfound blend of occultism and ancient alien sci-fi and the latest project, Planet of the Gods (2015), took those elements to unprecedented extremes.

In the months following Amerikkka's official reversion into systematic racism and hatred, Priest's music has felt like an informed escapist pleasure. Tracks like "New Reality" and "The Black Market" are loaded with plenty of dystopian imagery but also an indefatigable optimism, a steady reliance on the spirit that has prevailed through millennia of despots and tyrants. The music itself is an example of this, Priest's otherworldly artistic and imaginative brilliance showing the potency of creating new worlds ("Government conspiracies/ the ex nihilo in the hands of this Killa Bee") blending seamlessly with the production of Godz Wrath in a style that I can only describe as spiritual sci-fi. "Mathematical enlightenment, with masterful writing/ Mind travel need no license, just high science."

"Eternal life is in the journals I write"

The lessons prescribed in "The Black Market" are even more blatant:

"Here's the clues, let me walk you through
When you pray you talk to God, when you meditate God talks to you
You seem confused
We live in Revelations, head of the nation is Satan conjugation 
Conquered races
Now we facing condemnation
I'm contemplating confrontation
Final bomb invasion, read psalms and waiting"


And his role is defined masterfully:

"When Moses was born, the skies and the clouds parted
When Jesus was born, everything grew figs in the forest
Muhammad was born, the stars aligned, formed words looked Islamic
Priest was born and all the water turned chocolate
Born Metropolis, it's obvious the D's want to cop my wrists
From the third planet from the sun
Hammers near they lungs, cameras in the slums
I'm making canvas from the ear drum
Spit with sincere tongue
Seven wonders of the world, but I share with you nine
Bear with my mind, the flower patience, prepared this rhyme"

The trance-like séance track "The PWOWR (The Problem Solver)" is Priest carrying his famous spoken-word poetry style to new heights, the experience feeling like something akin to musical alchemy. It is musical medicine for our afflicted era. If you love Hip Hop, this is a track to listen to every day. You'll catch something new every time. "My rhymes open up portals for mortals to see the immortals."

The follow-up LP Planet of the Gods brought the darker and weirder elements of Psychic World to the forefront, courtesy of the album-length collaboration with Dutch production team Godz Wrath who specialize in creating trippy multidimensional instrumental atmospheres for Priest to go wild in. I've been listening to Killah Priest since his debut, have heard all of his albums and mixtapes...never heard him rap like he does on Planet of the Gods. There are tracks where he essentially builds sci-fi comic book stories in one rhyme, flipping to a whole different scenario in the next line. The creativity on display here is absurd.

"The monuments reconstruct themselves
Peace erupt in Hell
Where the lost souls dwell
A futuristic Mind
Computer Design
Modern-Tech Priest
Nukes the World of crime"

On one of my favorite tracks, "PWOWR Glove," even as the song is fading out he throws out lines that draw up Mad Max: Fury Road-type scenes effortlessly: "Thief goons/ riding through sand dunes/ to the skull woods/ Overlord followed by wolves/ with they horn headdress/ like a bull." Similarly short and cinematic bars lace "Rogue Godz": "Ghost ships on the rivers of blood/ flow silent thru the cliffs/ killers above." He takes the sci-fi futuristic conspiracy style to such extreme degrees that it seems he's trying to make you laugh, as on "Golden Pineapple of the Sun": "The CIA plan to murder the evil galactic dictator/ over big paper/ rich gangster/ diamond traders/ smuggling to the city of the skyscrapers."

The vast imaginative worlds Killah Priest creates are easy to get lost in. Like some kind of strange lyrical blend of Mad Max, E.T., The Matrix and Blade Runner mixed with Kabbalic mysticism and astrophysics, they serve as escapist pleasures while also edifying the listener about the consistently corrupt and malevolent motives of the rich and powerful.

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Nack Nuggets

Another source of relief, edification, and inspiration in these dark times has been the consistently raw Hip Hop manifesting out of Lynn, Massachusetts via the phenomenally talented group Tragic Allies. They are led by Purpose, a polished and imposing lyricist who's also a prolific producer with a style that hews closely to the original boom-bap essence of rap. 

My favorite member of the crew, Estee Nack, finally released his own solo album in 2015, produced entirely by Purpose, and it's been in steady rotation for me ever since. A bilingual Dominican with a dynamic flow and mic presence, Estee Nack tends to enliven any track he appears on. He's the heart and soul of the formidable Tragic Allies team. A solo project showcasing his talents was long overdue and his collaboration with Purpose, 14 Forms: The Book of Estee Nack, delivers the goods.

From start to finish, 14 Forms provides Hip Hop in its purest form, the classic urban art painted with a fresh coat thanks to the unique style of Nack who splashes wild flows and sputtering lyrical designs while always coloring within the lines, never straying off beat. The blend of fast-paced Purpose beats and Nack's flawless delivery feels like an audio drug on joints like "Churches, Music & Politics" and "Snowcap Mountains." But Nack is so much more than a flow acrobat, he's also a contemplative, extremely thoughtful lyricist. He never seems to sacrifice substance for rhyme resonance, instead always finding a stimulating balance of the two. His writing ability shines on philosophical tracks like the lead single "T.I.M.E." and "The Science of the Universe." It's on the final track, "Who Am I (The Closing)," where the blend of Purpose's production chops and Nack's luminous rhyme skills achieve the most perfect mixture. That song has been an inspirational anthem for me, repeated whenever needed. Gives me the chills every time.

"Lineage of Zeus, King David he played the harp and I produce
rhymes that help the human mind find they root
The energy that exists in between the subatomic particles 
No beginning or end is found to this article
Protons, electrons, neutrons, vibration of molecules
Stimulating life and matter for all of you"

Following his debut solo release with Purpose, in 2016 Nack dropped two new dynamic duo type collaborative projects with producer/rappers Relentless (the 7-track concept album Black and White Jesus) and al.divino (Triple Black Diamonds).

Purpose & Code Nine Below Sumerian Skies

Adding to his impressive stack of fully produced LPs, Purpose just produced another new album for a member of the Tragic Allies team, Below Sumerian Skies by Code Nine. Being the last member of the crew to release a solo album and, honestly, having never especially stood out to me in his appearances on the group tracks, I wasn't exactly looking out for Code Nine's new release. But it turns out the album is fantastic. I was fired up when first hearing it and have been listening to it constantly ever since.

With the art on display in Below Sumerian Skies, it becomes evident that the collection of talent on the Tragic Allies team is akin to an NBA super team---the LeBron James Heat teams or the current Warriors powerhouse. The quartet boasts four flow masters in Purpose, Estee Nack, Paranom, and Code Nine. All of them take to the chunky drums and soulful melodies of Purpose beats like starving dogs to a hunk of meat. The teamwork is fully on display on the posse cut "Blood Soaked Pages," one of only two tracks on Below Sumerian Skies with any featured artists.

Musically it's another feast of crisp, meditative tones courtesy of Purpose, but the show belongs to Code Nine. The agility of the kid's flow and emphatically enunciated delivery occasionally achieves a bewildering, dizzying affect. I was stunned how potent his style sounds on this album. His verses are colorful collages weaved out of cultural elements. He can take pride in being the first rapper to ever mention Salvador Dali in a rhyme (I found that thrilling). There are enough references to historical personages sewn into the fabric of his verses, you'll be noticing new ones for years. Clearly a hoops junkie, Code uses so many NBA player names that basketball becomes a persistent subtext on the album, adding to its enjoyment. ("Left pivot with the Mo Cheeks give-and-go/ Body set at 10-below" from "Staff of Moses" reminded me that I once sat behind 76ers legend Mo Cheeks at his son's---and my sister's---college graduation ceremony.)

The album's only flaws are the same missteps I usually find Tragic Allies guilty of---they occasionally get too maudlin that it becomes corny. Those blemishes are minimal, though, and easy to overlook when inspired to play tracks like "All Cylinders" and (my favorite track) "When the Saints Out" on repeat to soak in their majestic vibes.

*   *   *

The Landshark EP

Speaking of dope rap groups whose underrated members dropped impressive albums, June Megalodon from my favorite group The Wisemen just dropped a new project, The Landshark EP, a collaboration with UK producer Roll Blunt. In discussing this release, the very first thing that must be said is this album is raw and gritty as fuck. If you enjoy the high-adrenaline ferocity of early Wu-Tang, you'll dig The Landshark EP. It even has that lo-fi dusty sound to its production. The beats of Roll Blunt don't feel the least bit computer-generated or programmed---the sound he creates on The Landshark EP is analog, off-kilter chopped-up ruggedness in thematic alignment with its lyrical content. Named for a prehistoric shark, June Megalodon's debut release is bloodthirsty in-your-face rap. It's raw and high-tempo, wild as fuck, yet precisely written.

Over the span of The Wisemen catalog we hadn't heard a whole lot from June, maybe a handful of guest verses, but what little taste we had suggested he possessed a unique style of rhyming. The six-track EP shows that even the quietest member of The Wisemen packs a formidable stash of skills. I'm blown away by the creativity of his lyricism. Much like his close confidant Bronze Nazareth, June seems unable to describe any thought or observation without bending it through his unique rhyme style. Each element of his bars reveals a thoughtful craftsman and poet. To take one example, a favorite line of mine from "Ocean Spray": "Under the umbrella, buried the poinsettias." That short, simple, strikingly beautiful rhyme describes the imagery of a funeral, standing under an umbrella laying poinsettia flowers on a grave. It's fucking brilliant.

The cleverness and carefully constructed rhyme style stands out most evidently on "Mega Roll" where June delivers two entire verses of acrostics spelling out MEGA ROLL (for the duo of June Mega & Roll Blunt). To spell this all out, every word in each line starts with M, then E, then G, and so on. Again, it's a brilliant conceit and June the wordsmith executes it to perfection. This is what makes Hip Hop fun. You won't hear other musical genres with this kind of lyrical experimentation. Hard to pick out my favorite line among these: "Amazing all-around aura/ Action activist, aim at the auroras"; "I'm a lifer in my literature/ Ligature lasso lames/ Lay light on the listener."

The standout track in this brief batch of raw sounds is the fast-paced "Lab Rats" whose instrumental is a swerving truckload of choral screams and threatening strings punctuated by a snapping snare. The Wisemen, represented here by Bronze, June, and Illah Dayz, bare their teeth and promise destruction. Bronze sounds hungrier than ever, "Breaking down bone/ chrome tomahawk blade/ Destro drinking petrol high-grade."

On the fast-paced head-nodder "Kush Hennessey Remedy Melody" we are treated to a posthumous Kevlaar 7 verse, that steady serious voice of silver delivering a showstopper, "All-prime All-Pro/ stomp you with the gum sole/ my team blow real gold/ bless the globe." He closes the song, as he often did, giving a shout out to the Reaper following him, this time losing life's card game to Kev, "My spade ace was gleaming/ pull a 40/ hold the door/ the Reaper's leaving."

Lastly, I want to also share a couple new Bronze productions. First there was a six-track EP he produced for Trav Williams, Good Things Never Last, which opens with a Frederick Douglass speech and ends with a remarkably paced display of flows, "Debt" featuring Sha Stimuli. Then there's this new track produced by Bronze, a haunting flute-laden soundscape, "Tombstones In the Sky" by Hus Kingpin and Rozewood.

(Rest in Peace to Kevlaar)

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