Posts Tagged 'Black Milk'

What I’m Hearing, Vol. 11

For February’s music update, click here.

March has brought me some fantastic new cuts, and several blasts from the past that I hadn’t heard before, making them new to me. I will say that I downloaded The Jackson’s “Blame it On the Boogie” which is simply sublime. But through 56 new songs, including an album that won’t be released until next month, March was good for music. I’m almost sad to see it end, until I remember that once it does, I get to start all over again with April…

Dessa, False Hopes: Released in 2005, False Hopes is a 5 song EP from Dessa (@dessadarling) of Doomtree. Why write about a 2005 release as “new music?” Well, have you given this EP a listen yet? While short in length, this EP is huge on style and poignant, introspective lyrics against musically gripping backdrops. “551” looks at an addictive and damaging relationship over a dark beat laced with piano. Throughout the album, Dessa mixes her vocal talent with her rapping and slam poetry background to great effect. “Mineshaft” utilizes an urgent string backing and heavy drum beat to accentuate the sense of loss in the song. Many of the lyrics focus on a central theme of personal loss (“The list of things I used to be is longer than the list of things I am,” “I lost an octave to the Camel Lights”) and they’re delivered with such intensity that her personal experiences become visceral for the listener. “Kites” delivers an eerie underwater feeling that brings to mind the melancholy feeling I first heard on listening to Atmosphere’s “God’s Bathroom Floor.” Through just 5 solo songs and her contributions to Doomtree, Dessa rivals P.O.S. in her passion and creativity on this album, and one can only hope that her poetry, lyrics and music gain the public recognition that they deserve. Don’t Sleep On: “Mineshaft,” “551,” “Kites.”

Kero One, Early Believers: This man does it all out of his self-run label, Plug, in the Bay Area. DIY in every sense of the word, Kero One plays his own instruments, makes his own beats, writes his own lyrics, produces and mixes his own songs and then created a label to self-distribute. For the full review of his sophomore release, Early Believers, set to drop April 7th, click here. Don’t Sleep On: “This Life Ain’t Mine,” “Welcome to the Bay,” and “On and On.”

N.A.S.A., The Spirit of Apollo: The idea behind this collaboration album is bringing North American hip-hop together with South American beats and influences to create a cultural mash-up album with global appeal. And for the most part, the odd pairings of guest artists along with the sample heavy and culturally defiant music does the trick. As hip-hop laced with world music continues to gain traction on radio airwaves and popularity among listeners, it comes as no surprise that artists with a broad fan base such as Kanye West, Tom Waits and George Clinton were willing to contribute. Other international artists got in on the act too, with Santogold, Lykke Li and Seu Jorge joining the fray.

If there’s one drawback to this album, it’s that some of the songs come off as too packaged, relying more on the featured names than on the music itself. “Spacious Thoughts” featuring Tom Waits and Kool Keith is interesting, but forces too much of a juxtaposition between the rapper and the singer, leaving the transition from verse to chorus feeling fractured. If you’re into heavy, crunchy dance tracks, “Whachadoin?” feat. Spank Rock, M.I.A., Santogold and Nick Zinner is dense with bass and electronic flourishes, but a bit repetitive. Of course, where the songs are on, they’re on. DJ Qbert and Del tha Funkee Homosapien rip “Samba Soul,” the beat perfectly capturing Del’s sense of pace and timing, and “Gifted,” the track with Kanye, Lykke Li and Santogold has almost instant club appeal with grimy effects offset by a starry and airy video game tone sequence in the background. For the most part, N.A.S.A. plays like a who’s who of guest stars where the sum total of the music falls short of the artists involved, but on a handful of songs, the desire for North to meet South in interesting ways comes through. Don’t Sleep On: “Samba Soul” featuring Del Tha Funkee Homosapien and DJ Qbert, “Money” featuring David Byrne, Chuck D, Ras Congo, Seu Jorge and Z-Trip, and “Gifted” featuring Kanye West, Lykke Li and Santogold.

The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, The Pains of Being Pure At Heart: After a 2007 EP release, PoBP@H released this debut self-titled effort in February on Slumberland records. The initial offering finds the group exploring the various genres of Indie Rock, Shoegaze and Sugar Punk and the spaces between them. The band utilizes a variety of sounds to evoke different moods, not shying away from using both electric and acoustic guitars depending on the song, and descending into lo-fi static where necessary. The lyrics seem less important to the songs than the contribution the singing melody lends the tunes and the drums remain consistent throughout to lend the backbone to a group that alternates between sulking and exulting. In some places, 80’s influences sneak through, “The Tenure Itch” being a song that could have easily made the Donnie Darko soundtrack. But whether they’re soft or hard, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart remain effusive in their energy, bringing a sense of urgency and drive to every song that keeps the album moving. Don’t Sleep On: “Stay Alive,” “This Love is F*****g Right!” and “A Teenager in Love.”

Indiefeed Hip-Hop: Dirt E. Dutch from Indiefeed (@dutchman) brought out some more stellar cuts this month, but one of my favorite, Dutch’s “Welcome to the World Kayla Vivien!” is a smooth and mellow instrumental affair to celebrate the birth of his daughter that was actually put out in February. Finale’s Black Milk remixed track “One Man Show” moves with low-end bass touches and high-end electronic agility while B Real’s “Don’t You Dare Laugh” uses an interesting interpolation of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner.” All in all, a positive showing this month.

The next few months are looking solid for new music releases, so keep it tuned.

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Part 1: Opio and Tajai Interview (Souls of Mischief)

Opio of Souls of Mischief

Opio of Souls of Mischief

Tajai of Souls of Mischief

Tajai of Souls of Mischief

Since the early 1990s, Oakland, California based Hip-Hop collective Hieroglyphics has taken on many shapes and sounds, from the lyrically complex and dense solo stylings of Del tha Funkee Homosapien to the rapid-fire and diverse delivery of Hieroglyphics to the smooth and masterful underground sound of Souls of Mischief. Spanning nearly two decades, Hiero and Souls of Mischief have brought new sounds and ideas to the industry while also providing a backbone of creativity that has helped influence the entire Bay Area music scene.

In November I had the opportunity to sit down with Tajai and Opio of Hiero and SOM, two members responsible for an incredible amount of solo and collaborative work for the HieroImperium. In part 1, we discussed their musical backgrounds, the formation of Hiero and the difficulty of staying relevant in a music industry that places an emphasis on the “next big thing.”

ACtual: Starting off early, what were both of your initial musical influences and inspirations, and when did you decide that rapping is what you wanted to do?

Opio: I used to be hella into Reggae, really. Yellowman is one of my favorites, obviously Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, they had the swagger that got me on rap. My parents were really into music, so through them I heard Earth, Wind and Fire, Parliament-Funkadelic, stuff like that. When I first really started to hear rap, I heard “Rapper’s Delight,” stuff like that, Grandmaster Flash. They used to play Rock and Roll stations out here, mixing, like college radio. Really the first time I heard “Rapper’s Delight,” I was just hooked to the way he was spittin’, it was cool, and it just evolved from there. All the older cats in my neighborhood were listening to them, breakdancing, graffiti and all of that was a part of it too. At the same time cats were breaking, graffiti artists, so it was that whole Hip-Hop culture, it wasn’t only just the rapping, I was breakdancing, all of that.

Tajai: Funk, I would say Funk was my biggest influence. Parliament, Bootsy, George Clinton, and then Too Short is probably the main reason I rap just because all the other rappers, I saw other people doing it, but I didn’t think that people from here could do it. As a kid, it was just my perception of it was something that other people did until I saw Too Short rapping and then I was like, “He’s from here and he raps.” That’s when I really started seriously rapping.

AC: You two as well as the Souls of Mischief crew met early on. Talk about how all of you met, came together and the creation of both Souls and Hieroglyphics.

T: We grew up in the same area, so I’ve known Casual and A-Plus since like Kindergarten, 1st grade. Del was at the same school as us, we just sort of all had a mutual interest in Hip-Hop, so once Del got on in ’91 he sort of brought us into the industry, but we had been rapping together for a long time before that. Casual went to junior high with Op.

O: The first time I went into the studio ever, me and Casual rented a studio in the 8th grade. Our man Terai came with us, he was in the 7th grade. I wasn’t even rapping then, I was a DJ, so I was DJing, scratching during that time. This is in the 7th/8th grade, me and Casual went to junior high and he already knew them. I would listen to their music when I was in junior high but I hadn’t really started to kick it with Tajai and A-Plus, but he would have tapes and be like, “listen to my partners.” I’d see them up the block and be like, “there goes Tajai right there.” We really started hanging out in high school, but the whole time we lived right around the same area. We all lived around the same block as each other but we weren’t really in communication until high school, and that’s when we really became a lot more serious about the rapping.

AC: You were released on Jive Records in 1993. Talk about the process of creating that album and what working for a major label was like. You were what, 17, 18 when that album came out?

O: Yea. That album to me was something, that, I would listen to songs that they had done when I was in junior high and me and Casual went into the studio, we were kinda serious about the whole rap thing. Tajai and A-Plus were working with Sir Jinks and they had a professional sound that inspired us to get on our business a little more. This is early on, so we had been working on our craft until we came out. We were probably 13, 14 really serious going to the studio.

That album, even though we recorded it in 2 weeks, it was something that was formulating for a lot of years. I really think it was highly influenced also by the whole crew aspect, not just the fact that we were Souls of Mischief, because we’re competitive by nature within Souls of Mischief, but then there was also Del and Casual, Pep Love, we had these other fierce MCs. Even during the time before ’93 til Infinity came out, everybody heard the demos, so we had something to live up to. People would hear the demos and be like, “the album will be wack, whatever,” and they heard other cats around us that were really shining, so it was a long time coming to me, that album getting done, even though it seemed like it popped out of nowhere, we had been working for some years.

AC: When Hiero formed, what was your original vision for the group and how did you go about making Third Eye Vision?

T: We’ve been together as a crew since before Del’s first record. Our vision then was let’s just all be the best we can be, get signed and be super stars. That’s different than how things progressed just dealing with major label politics, and the fact that, for someone to walk into Hip-Hop today, they have no idea that even when we came out it was still like a sub-culture. So being a super-star and blowing up meant selling a couple of thousand records, maybe going gold, but not platinum. The only people going platinum were guys like Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer.

So once we got off the majors, it was like let’s not stop making music just because we don’t have a label, let’s keep making music and then Domino was like, “Shoot, we might as well put this record out instead of trying to shop it, and from there we started Hiero Imperium and we’ve been rolling since then because it’s been, I’m not going to say easier logistically, but easier in regard to being able to be agile and creative. And now, almost 10, 11 years later, we’re really reaping the rewards of having laid that groundwork of being independent so long. Third Eye was something we recorded out of the need to make music, and then from there it built up to this independent label.

AC: With HieroImperium, you guys have been putting out albums and podcasts for a while now. What do you find to be the hardest part of being in this industry for as long as you guys have?

T: We’re not new, that’s the problem. To people who have never heard of us, which is not that many people, it’s like, “Wow these guys are fantastic!” But to people who have, it’s like, we come with something we feel is our best work and it’s like, “Ok, that’s dope.” There’s so much garbage out here that gets attention because it’s new, and that’s the frustrating part about it. If you’re consistent in music, that’s not good enough a lot of times, you have to have controversy or you have to fall real low to bring yourself back up, but we’ve been consistent and there’s so many of us, that that’s the biggest problem I see, we’re not new.

O: Also, over the years of doing it, touring, consistently going out and being on the road, not just only recording the albums, but the whole rap life in and of itself can take its toll. Sometimes people get jaded, but I think that luckily because there’s a lot of us, we’re able to keep ourselves focused and sharp. Without other people pushing you, and you’re hearing people recording songs and maintaining that creative energy and you don’t have it, your brother can lift you up a little bit and you hear some new shit, “oh man that’s dope,” it kinda gets your juices flowing. Maybe you’re at the house just bored, you wrote so many raps you’re through with it for a hot second, so it’s always a good thing to have other cats around you working and doing stuff. Casual, he’s always busy, Del is always in the lab working, A-Plus just consistent with the beats, so you can always go to those guys and be like, “What’s new?” just to get a little spark.

AC: In terms of approaching the writing, how would you say that your styles differ when you’re trying to come up with stuff for an individual album vs. working on a Souls project or working on a Hieroglyphics project, how do you approach each of those differently?

T: You’re competing against yourself when you’re making a solo record, so you get to look at things more holistically, you look at the entire project as a whole and where things fit in. Whereas when you’re in a group, you’re looking at how you fit into that particular song. With your own records I think it’s harder because you have to push yourself a little bit harder to be better than yourself, verse by verse and song by song. With a group album I think it’s easier because there’s so many other people you’re competing against that you have to come with your best work, that’s the main difference for me.

O: To me, I just feel more comfortable in the group element whether it’s Souls of Mischief or Hieroglyphics, I like the collaboration aspect of things and working with other cats, so to me that’s always been fun. I saw the challenge more so than doing music with others, trying to do something by myself like it’s a Herculean task cause you have so much more that you have to do. At the same time, once the process gets going, you kinda relax in your environment and it’s a good place to be because you can advance your style a little more. You get to go longer.

Especially in Souls of Mischief, we try to keep that quick jab approach so for me it’s kinda fun to just run my mouth for a little while. I’ve always been trying to explore more avant-garde styles whenever we’re doing songs with Souls of Mischief, so you can see the different elements that we bring to the table when you see our solo projects. You can see the different parts working. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what it’s like when you’re listening to the group all together then you get to hear the solo and be like, “So that’s how Souls of Mischief comes together,” at least for me because I’m a fan of Souls of Mischief too, even though I’m in the group, when I’m with other cats I love to hear the music and I like to hear the solo albums as well to see them even go further with it.

AC: Going off what you were saying earlier about the hardest thing is having been here for so long because new stuff always gets more attention. You hear a lot of mainstream writers, media people that say Hip-Hop is dead, and rappers will sometimes say that too. But there’s a lot of really good Hip-Hop out there if you know where to find it, so what do you listen to and what other artists in the genre inspire you?

T: Percy P, Guilty Simpson, Madlib, Black Milk. There’s a lot of groups that you probably won’t hear anywhere but satellite radio. I like Lil Wayne because he’s pushing the boundaries of mainstream but he’s doing something wild and crazy to something that just listened to dance rap so that’s good because maybe their minds will open a little more to people who dwell completely outside of that, but ain’t really much on TV that I like, not because it’s on TV, but because Rap music is really Pop music now. Hip-Hop can’t ever be dead. It may not inspire you the way that it used to, but that’s probably because you’re just not into it anymore. But as far as Hip-Hop, when we do shows and there’s thousands of kids there, it’s like, what are they talking about?

O: The way that Hip-Hop has been brought to the table and how it’s shown, it’s really not the true artform of it. It doesn’t represent. It’s more for trying to sell products, clothes, alcohol, stuff like that. It’s like a big commercial. But when there’s true artists trying to explore the creative process and what it takes to make a great song or a great lyric, a guy like J Electronica for instance is really dope. There’s people out there that’s doing it, but when you watch Rap City, you don’t get to see those guys that often.

I just feel like the vehicle that people are going to start getting Hip-Hop with is going to open the doors for more creative styles, people that are pushing the envelope stylistically and creatively which for me is the essence of Hip-Hop. How it was when De La Soul was coming out and A Tribe Called Quest was coming out, new flavors. I feel like that old form of commercialized, over-commercialized Hip-Hop, that is dead. It’s old hat, you can only use that so much before people get numb to it and it becomes a hard sell, pouring champagne everywhere, throwing money everywhere, people have seen that so much it doesn’t sell shoes how it used to, so now they’re going to start looking to the underground to do that.

AC: We were talking earlier about your latest project, Vulture’s Wisdom, Vol. 1. Talk about your vision for the trilogy, when the other albums are going to come out and what the idea behind these solo albums is.

O: I was just working with my man Architect, I’ve always been a fan of his music and his beats for a long time. He’s always been a cat that was out there, the style of his music is something that I always had a good time and enjoyed listening to. He worked next to us at High Street studios, he had a spot next to me so we had more of a chance to kick it and hang out and we were talking about doing a record, but it never really came together. Eventually I saw him in traffic one time and he was like, “I’ve got some beats, I’ve been thinking about you, we should do an album together.” When he hit me some of the beats and the style he was working with, it was perfect, we were right on the same page at the same exact time, so from there we just started collaborating and made a lot of music. Then we decided that we should not really stop at just one thing but hit cats with at least three projects, so that’s how the whole idea for the trilogy came up. The concept behind the title, like we were talking about earlier how everyone says Hip-Hop is dead, there’s nothing there, it’s over with whatever, we were like, “Nah, we can eat here, it’s still a viable option for us,” so that’s how the Vulture’s Wisdom title came into play.

We just are really trying to kill the backstory in terms of that being the forefront, we want to make the music the forefront, the style, the beats, the rhymes, the lyrics, not really like this guy did this, that, and the other. There’s always the story and sometimes it’s more interesting than the music and then you hear the music and you’re like, “this is what all the hoopla is about?” We want to bring it back to where the music is what people care about more so than the imagery. I feel like the 90s are something that people are trying to reach for right now, like that’s the golden ear, which for me is ’88, but other cats are more caught up in that ’93 era right now, always reaching back to the 90s and trying to bring it forward to here. Whereas I’ve always been a part of that connected to the whole essence of real Hip-Hop, so that’s where I come from, that’s my pedigree, whereas other cats might be trying to bring that back, I’m just trying to stay in that vein that I’ve always been in, that true essence of Hip-Hop, so it’s not a stretch for me to come and do something that people might call “real Hip-Hop,” that’s what we do, that’s Hieroglyphics, some of that good shit.

AC: Tajai – Stanford Anthropology grad, is that right?

T: Yea.

AC: How do you feel that education, that degree has helped your music? Have you incorporated that in your career at all?

T: It’s helped me with research, but that’s about it. School is school, it’s different from music, it just helped me research topics. Aside from that, it maybe helped me be organized in terms of my business, just going to school in general, but that’s about it.

AC: How important is it to you guys that you’re not major label? Do you think that you would have gotten anywhere near what you have accomplished if you were working for a major?

T: You’re just at the mercy of the market. There’s artists like J*Davey, Bilal, artists that you’ll never see their record. They’ve been in the industry now for almost a decade but because it doesn’t fit the labels idea of what records are supposed to be, it never comes out, so in that respect we probably would never have been able to bust the moves we could. It’s still different, it’s not like you’re doing it for a more noble purpose when you’re independent or you’re major. The way it is now, we’re like a major independent, us, DefJux, Rhymesayers, probably Stones Throw are labels where people want to get on the label, so it’s like they’re treating our independent record label like we would treat a major as a signed artist. We have more control, but really the market determines a lot of it and it’s harder right now to not be seen as generic in this marketplace because there’s so much. I mean, I think there’s more musicians than fans almost, especially rappers. So it’s hard to distinguish yourself as far as “into the marketplace,” so in that respect, it might even be better to be on a major label where they have the money to market you, where you have a shoe and a commercial and an appearance on Entourage and all these different things that are going to give you more exposure. Like when we put out a record, when we put out Vulture’s Wisdom, it has 8 videos, and how many of those are going to be on TV? We send them to TV, but do they end up on TV? No. So it’s really like we’re relegated to YouTube and MySpace and satellite radio and internet radio, and that’s the downside of being independent. It’s more a matter of exposure and it’s a double-edged sword. They’ll spend the money to expose you, but if they don’t like what they hear, they’re not going to expose you at all and you might never see the light of day.

O: If you’re doing it in terms of a business endeavor, you have to take advantage of what’s out there. I feel like for Souls of Mischief at the time, how the market was, us going major label was the best way for us to go at the time. To try to go independent would have been a bad look. It gave us a really good opportunity to get our music out there. We made what we really wanted and it got out to the people. For a time, the labels were all about trying to make super Pop Hip-Hop and I don’t know if they were going towards super avant-garde now, but definitely the tide has changed in terms of which artists are selling records. Lupe Fiasco is outselling artists, he’s like top-tier in terms of who the guy is. Kanye West outselling 50 Cent, so there’s a changing of the guard where if you are really more on the creative side of things, you might be able to get in and bust some moves, if you’ve got what it takes. Some people don’t necessarily have that appeal so it might be bad for them to go the independent route, you gotta really weigh your options. Cause the main thing, what you want to do is get your music out there for people to see you and listen to you and at the end of the day, to me that’s the most important thing. Then you can do whatever you gotta do with your hustle.

Check back with Evolving Music on Friday for part 2 where we discuss the future plans of the group, their thoughts on the remix culture and their favorite Hip-Hop albums of all time.

Musical Musings

With 2008 and all the music that came with it steadily speeding away in our rear view, I got to thinking a lot about what we did and didn’t see last year in the musical world, and what’s coming. When it comes down to it, 2008 was largely defined by some of the musical trends we saw, the continuing struggle over DRM and the ever growing attempts to market, brand and distribute music in ways that utilize multiple media and social platforms.

Musically, there was a greater push towards mash-ups (AmpLive Interview) and punk fueled Indie rock. Bands like Fall Out Boy and Bloc Party among many others kept driving guitars, sometimes melancholy lyrics and music that’s in your face in terms of pace at the forefront of the radio mainstream. Hip-Hop continued its usual pond-like trend: scum on the surface, beautiful water underneath with “artists” like T.I., T-Pain and Flo-rida topping the charts while rappers like Akrobatik, eLZhi and Black Milk continued struggling to boost their word of mouth. The line between Hip-Hop and Pop was continually blurred as radio Rap brought in more Rock and World music sounds into their songs.

We saw Kanye West rebound from a personally disastrous year to re-vamp his sound with 808s and Heartbreak, and we saw Guns ‘N Roses dig themselves out of a nearly 20 year grave to release the much anticipated Chinese Democracy album, something that many fans thought they’d never hear. Of course, most fans expected to hear either a new Eminem album (Relapse) or the long awaited and highly anticipated Detox album from Dr. Dre, and they got neither.

The DRM battle raged on in 2008, and in even just the beginning weeks of ’09 we’ve seen a nice movement in the area. For most of 2008, the IFPI (2) and the RIAA battled downloaders, both large and small, in court. Looking for lost compensation, they took to trial serial filesharers and spent massive amounts of time and money scaring college kids into settling out of court for fear of an expensive and punitive sentence against them. In the end, these efforts were largely useless, and in my mind, a joke, as they claimed to be fighting for the artists, while we all pretty much know how little the labels show the artists from individual song downloads.

The record industry spent months wringing their hands over lost profits and ways to control music that they long ago lost almost all control over. You have to wonder if, looking back now, they aren’t thinking of all their recent efforts as merely shutting the barn door after all the animals already escaped. And the change in tune has been brisk… Now, just two weeks into ’09, Apple has announced one of the broadest and most accessible withdrawals of DRM and price restructuring of MP3s in years. The four major labels have helped produce this movement, and it shows the increasing power of the consumers in the music marketplace. Once tied to hard copy formats like CDs with an average price table, consumers this year found diverse and creative ways to obtain their music, forcing the hand of the labels to recognize that DRM is not what the people want. How this lack of DRM will effect iPod sales or iTunes downloads remains to be seen. The launch of the App Store on iTunes also took music mobile with an incredible number of music related apps (and a few apps that are just plain incredible) designed for the iPhone.

The idea of Take Away shows and having artists perform live in unconventional venues took off. Nine Inch Nails picked up on Radiohead’s experiment with a free download format of an album, but they’ve taken it a step further now by offering over 400 GB of HD video footage from their concert tours up on torrent streams for fans to remix and create DVDs. This fan interaction has become tantamount to bands in the last year with MySpace including music, and a large number of acts going from conventional websites to social networking platforms.

And while these social networking sites and the bands that use them were beginning to become increasingly entwined, musicians were getting in the mix as well, literally. Late in 2008, MixMatchMusic officially opened its doors to musicians from all over the world to create, upload, collaborate and work with stems to broaden the ways people approach making music. With the DemoGod award at Demo ’08, a write-up in the San Francisco Chronicle and the ever-popular RemixSarahPalin.com, this vision of worldwide musical collaboration and the power of mixing and matching steps closer to being a full-fledged reality. (MixMatchMusic)

So what’s next? With the DRM barriers falling, the new foundations of band and fan interaction being laid and Web 2.0 casting a wider net over the ‘net, music in 2009 could be anyone’s game. Personally, I’m just waiting for The Detox… And now a moment for the outstanding musicians we lost this year, Bo Diddley and LeRoi Moore, among others.

What I’m Hearing, Vol. 8

For a taste of October’s music, click here.

November’s update comes with over 100 tracks spanning both new and old albums, and quite a bit in terms of the Yancey family. We’ve got hip-hop and indie rock, R&B and rap. Enjoy!

Black Milk, Tronic: An album that pushes the traditional boundaries of hip-hop with futuristic synths and musical approaches, Black Milk still puts out several songs that utilize nostalgic samples. I won’t say much more because I’ve already written a full album review, but in my recent interview with Hieroglyphics members Opio and Tajai, they named Black Milk as one of the hip-hop producers they were liking the sound of recently. Read the full album review here. Don’t Sleep On: “Long Story Short,” “Bounce,” and “Losing Out” featuring Royce da 5’9″

Bloc Party, Intimacy: When Bloc Party released their initial effort, Silent Alarm in 2005, it brought a distinct sound to the indie rock arena with Kele Okereke’s emotional British accent and their hard charging guitars on songs like “Banquet.” That album spawned a remix album before the release of what I viewed to be a lackluster sophomore effort on 2007’s A Weekend in the City, an album that had three, maybe four really solid songs, tops. Thankfully though, Intimacy not only serves to take some of the band’s music in another direction, but returns the indie sound on their rock songs to the top-notch form that looked possible from their debut. Intimacy still has driving drums and screaming guitars, but the band has started to utilize more in the way of drum machines and electronic flourishes that create a new dimension for them to explore and in some cases creates some of the most musically advanced songs the band has produced to date. Okereke’s use of his voice is showing maturity, commanding more range of both pitch and emotion here. In some songs, it feels like the input they had on their work from Silent Alarm Remixes has prompted them to explore in new directions. A very solid album. Don’t Sleep On: “Signs,” “One Month Off,” and “Talons.”

Illa J, Yancey Boys: I’ve read a few reviews of this album that basically mock Illa J’s approach and state that he only made this album because he got posthumously released tracks from his big brother J Dilla. I think these reviews miss the point of the album in that Illa J doesn’t fancy himself a rapper or hip-hopper, he’s a self-described singer/songwriter, so it only makes sense that what he does over Dilla beats is going to be different from Dilla’s output when he was alive. On this album, the younger Yancey proves himself musically diverse and extremely relaxed, while also recognizing the importance of respecting Dilla’s production. The tracks here are laid back and jazzy, and Illa takes no effort to listen to, he’s that easy. Click here for the full album review, and click here for my interview with Illa J. Don’t Sleep On: “R U Listenin’?” feat. Guity Simpson, “We Here,” and “DTFT” feat. Affion Crockett

J Dilla, Welcome 2 Detroit: With the way underground hip-hop is structured and feeds into the mainstream, it’s often possible for fans to miss an initial classic album from an artist, and then never check it out once they’ve gotten big because it gets lost in the new music. With Illa J’s debut album dropping this month featuring almost exclusive production from Dilla, it only made sense to make sure people were aware of J Dilla’s initial solo offering and the way it intersects with the rest of the hip-hop genre. On Welcome 2 Detroit, Dilla’s signature melodic and stoned out beats are in fine form with lyrical help from other Detroit rappers such as eLZhi (WIH6) and Phat Kat. The album, released in 2001, still sounds fresh and innovative today and features several tracks that showcase Dilla’s ability to fuse other sounds into his hip-hop such as the co-produced (Karriem Riggins) “Rico Suave Bossa Nova” and “B.B.E. (Big Booty Express)” which Dilla seems to have created in order to slip onto future releases of the 1977 Kraftwerk album Trans-Europe Express. Don’t Sleep On: “Shake It Down,” “It’s Like That,” feat. Hodge Podge and Lacks, and “Pause” feat. Frank-N-Dank.

Jedi Mind Tricks, A History of Violence: Underground hip-hop mainstays Jedi Mind Tricks return for their 6th studio album with more hard hitting tracks, masterful production and intricate lyrics. The conspiracy themes from previous albums remain here, and the production draws from interesting samples such as the strings and haunting foreign lyrics on “Monolith” and the sparse flute in “Trail of Lies.” The lyrical deliveries on these tracks are tight, concise and deep in content, and on the whole, the album is a display of exceptional craft from artists working together with a common musical vision and knowledge of their strengths. Don’t Sleep On: “Trail of Lies,” “Death Messiah,” and “Heavy Artillery.”

Kanye West, 808s and Heartbreaks: Following the death of his mother, I was wondering what the latest output from an artist so in touch with his emotions and personal experiences would sound like. On the one hand, I could see West shaking off the events of the last year or so and putting out his most bouncy and sample-laden disc to date. On the opposite end of that, I could imagine West delving deep into what was going on and producing an intensely personal album. On 808s, West moves in a direction completely opposite of the roads he’s traveled before, and comes out all the better for it. Let’s be clear. 808s is not an album for anyone expecting the continuation of sound and work from West’s previous three albums, and it’s not an album that everyone is going to enjoy musically. Using an 808 drum machine and extensively using Auto-Tune to sing rather than rap, West has produced a stripped down and emotionally raw album. Heavy on synths and in points retro-80s sounds (tracks here could have made an Aphex Twin or Tricky album), West lays bare what’s going on with him and refuses to apologize for the new direction of his music. What’s amazing is that while I think the roster of musicians today who could completely change course from one album to the next and do so successfully is small, Kanye does make that list with this album. Dark, personal and musically adventurous, 808s and Heartbreaks exposes West as the musician he is rather than the hip-pop clone machine he’s often typecast as. Don’t Sleep On: “Paranoid,” feat. Mr. Hudson, ” “Bad News” (which features a sample from Nina Simone‘s “See Line Woman”) and “Street Lights.”

Ludacris, Theater of the Mind: While some artists are out to create philosophically moving pieces, or to in some way further the hip-hop culture, Ludacris doesn’t concern himself with such lofty ideals. He’s about making money. A lot of it. On his 6th studio album, Ludacris returns with the formula that has made him the hottest rapper in the South’s history… pulsing and grimy beats full of horns and deep bass kicks meet with quick delivery lyrics touching on sex, violence, money and his ability to outsell other rappers. Keep in mind, I’m not saying that this formula doesn’t work for him and doesn’t have its place within rap and hip-hop, but it is without any sort of creative growth that Luda moves forward. If there’s any doubt about the kind of sales Ludacris would like to see, this album is the most saturated rap album I’ve seen in years in terms of cameo appearances. Ludacris is the lone rapper on only 2 of the 15 tracks, getting guest appearances from Floyd Mayweather (yes, the boxer), Chris Rock (yes, that comedian), Jamie Foxx (still an actor?), Common and Spike Lee (one of them is a rapper, right?), Nas, Jay-Z and current Top 40 mainstays T.I., The Game, T-Pain and Lil Wayne. This approach either means that he intends to make a lot of money based on name recognition of his guests or he realizes that to put out an album that only has him on it, he’d need to come up with full lyrics to all of his songs, a task that might seem daunting (I mean, how many times can you really come up with new raps about rims and Cadillacs?) While musically and lyrically this album isn’t challenging, it has certainly produced some tracks that we’re sure to be hearing in clubs and parties very soon. Don’t Sleep On: “Intro” (only a minute of rapping, but well worth it, and one of only 2 songs with just Luda on it), “Undisputed” feat. Floyd Mayweather, and “Wish You Would” feat. T.I.

Opio, Vuture’s Wisdom, Vol. 1: The first in a trilogy of albums to be released by Opio from Hieroglyphics with production by Architect. The idea behind the albums is that people are saying hip-hop is dead, or at least that’s the popular expression lately. Vulture’s Wisdom refers to the ability to pick what’s left of life from the bones of the deceased, and this album shows that Opio hasn’t lost any of the edge that has carried him through more than a decade in the industry as a part of the Hiero Imperium. Be on the lookout for my interview with Opio and Tajai, where they discuss their plans to release a new single every week in 2009. Don’t Sleep On: “Don Julio,” “Mind, Body and Soul,” and “Some Superfly Shit.”

Singles… these are the songs where the full album just didn’t cut it, but the songs deserve their time in your ears. Check out “4 Wind,” a multi-lingual remix of the cut from Breez Evahflowin and Dirt E. Dutch’s Troublemakers album, and the radio ready hip-pop of T-Pain songs “Can’t Believe It” featuring L’il Wayne and “Karaoke” featuring DJ Khaled where T-Pain goes off on the rest of the industry (funny coming from the guy who did “Bartender”) and claims the only cool rappers are Kanye West and L’il Wayne. Well, at least he’s consistent. There you have it, the November update… up next is the second installment of last year’s 11 Songs to Be Thankful For.

eLZhi Interview

eLZhi

In September’s version of “What I’m Hearing,” I reviewed the solo debut album from eLZhi, The Preface. Late last month, I had a chance to sit down and chat with the up and coming Detroit rapper who has been in the game since the ’90s about the state of hip-hop, his progression as an artist, remix culture and politics. Enjoy!

AC: How are you doing? Where you at today?
EL: I’m over at my friend Phat Kat‘s house. Chillin over here, writing rhymes.
AC: Up in Detroit?
EL: Yea, we’re in Detroit right now.
AC: Start off easy…what’s the meaning of your name, and you have stressed capitalization in it. What’s the importance of that?
EL: The L and the Z are capitalized in my name because that’s what I used to go by before eLZhi, LZ. How I even got eLZhi was trying to spend out LZ, spelling it out wrong and it was elzhi and I was like, “Yea, I like that, I’m going to keep that.” At first there wasn’t a meaning to it, I didn’t know what it meant. Then I got into Slum Village and my boy Baatin was really big on Hebrew and was learning the Hebrew language and actually broke my name down to me and said my name means “God’s Spirit.” So the “el” is God and the “zhi” is 7 and 7 is a spiritual number.

AC: Talk a bit about growing up in terms of your relationship with music. What were some of your early influences?
EL: Before I started writing rhymes, my influences were things my Mom used to play. She used to play a lot of Motown records from Marvin Gaye to Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross, things of that nature. My auntie used to play Planet Rock, stuff like Jack the Ripper, LL. I got my first cassette tape from my Grandfather. He bought me a walkman and a cassette tape and it was like Fat Boys. So from there I was in love with the art form and started hearing a little Rakim, hearing a little Special Ed, a little Ice Cube and I was just gone after that, I knew it was something I wanted to pursue and be a part of.

AC: When did you first start officially rapping and writing rhymes and what were your initial experiences like both live and in the studio?
EL: I started writing rhymes at the age of 8. Things like “I figga like a nigga/pop the gun and hold the trigger/the gun is loaded 12 gauge I hold it/the bomb exploded one sucker corroded/and I just won’t stop til my lyrics pop/making sure that you weak and my opponent gets dropped.” That’s something I wrote when I was 8. My first rhyme that I wrote was actually off the top of my head. Another thing that kept me going on and on was one of my family members, she used to always want me to freestyle in front of people she brought around the house. By her pumping me up like that, it really made me want to keep going with it.

The first time I got in the studio it was kinda weird. Usually you’re just rapping on the streets, rapping in the hallways, lunchrooms, whatever, but when you put your voice to that mic, sometimes you don’t sound exactly how you sound to yourself when you’re just talking. I had to really learn how to control my voice, my breath control when I was in the booth, I was out of breath a lot of times, it’s just a whole different world. That’s really the test to see if you want to be an MC is mastering that booth, and mastering how you sound on the mic and then from there mastering how you sound on the stage. When I finally got it down pat, I was definitely satisfied with the outcome.

AC: You’ve done a lot of collaboration in your career with other artists. Talk about how you identify artists you’d like to work with, how that process comes about and what this constant collaboration has done for your career and your style.
EL: Basically, if I want to collaborate with someone, it’s cause I feel what they’re doing. Collaborations that came about in the past with us getting involved with people already in the industry, we just let the label know, cause at the time we were working with Capitol. I’m speaking on Slum Village, by the way, for those who don’t know. But at the time we were working with Capitol and we let them know that we were trying to get at Kanye. Now Slum worked with, before I got in the group, a bunch of cats from Busta Rhymes to Pete Rock to Kurupt to Common, Q-Tip, the whole nine. And those were strictly off the strength that they liked Slum’s music. You listen to the Detroit Deli album, I was a part of the group at that time, and we got Kanye, mainly because we really identified with his music and thought he was live with it, so the label hooked up the situation and he was actually in the booth. And just to see this guy in the studio, doing his thing, happy about making music and enjoying increasing the quality of his craft, it was inspiring, it made me want to take it to the next level. In these days and times, I’m just trying to get mine and I think about that from time to time and use that as inspiration to push forward.

AC: You’ve been a longtime artist now on the Detroit scene, and you were on the scene long before Eminem was, who in a way has become one of the biggest pop rap names out of Detroit. Have you noticed a difference in the feel and quality of the scene from before and after his discovery, and would you say by extension that artists from Detroit are tired of being associated with him?
EL: The scene was two totally different eras. Back then, hip-hop was a little bit more live, even to people in the mainstream because you could turn on BET and see Rap City and actually look at a Hieroglyphics video or a Black Moon video. Hip-hop was alive because you didn’t really have to go digging. Now you have to go digging. You’re not even really seeing videos from some of the illest artists that are out today, so it’s a totally different thing. It was strictly just on some hip-hop stuff, people werer just trying to make classic records, they weren’t even thinking about the radio.

After Eminem blew up, hip-hop was changing, so it was people back then doing it to make classic records, and now they’re trying to make classic records while at the same time making that radio hit so they can get on like that. But one thing I do like about it, is that in Detroit, I can’t speak for nowhere else, just us going off into that music for the masses or whatever, it’s a good thing and a bad thing. But I focus on the good thing. It made a unity happen in Detroit that wasn’t there before. You got cats like Trick Trick rapping with Royce, Trick Trick rapping with eLZhi, elZHi rapping with Stretch Money, it formed a unity. As far as Eminem, we never get tired of that. Eminem making it was like everyone else making it from that era and he set a real good example of how to come out of the hood and do good, so we’re definitely not mad at that. He represents all of us like we represent him.

AC: You just released The Preface, and I’ve been listening to this a lot…the album is hot. It was a long time coming for you to release an official solo album debut. Why did you wait so long and what was the process for you working on this album?
EL: It’s been a long time coming. The reason it took so long was I had to make sure my business was right. Slum Village as well as eLZhi was going through some label troubles, but everything is all good now. I did the album in like 3.5 weeks and what happened was I took a CD overseas to sell when I went on tour and that CD has become known as the Euro Pass. Really I was just taking it over there to sell, I didn’t know it would do as good as it did, as far as being on the internet like it was, and I just wanted to take control of the buzz and strike while the iron was hot. They basically told me I had this amount of time to work on a record, and if I didn’t, I would have to wait to put out a record after Black Milk, so I was like let me just get in the studio and buckle down and make some music from the heart but at the same time be snappy about it because I only had a limited amount of time to do it so The Preface was born.
AC: Was everything on The Preface original material for the album or did you take anything from your previous work?
EL: I took maybe three or four songs from the Euro Pass that circulated around the internet. Reason being for that is that these were songs people were expressing to me through Myspace that they enjoyed and I’m like, “I’m not going to take those away, especially if I can put it on another album and make it sound better than it did, basically breathe more life into it. So I didn’t want to do that to the fans who had that record, but at the same time I didn’t want to take everything off the Euro Pass and put it on The Preface cause I did want to make it a different record. So besides those 4 cuts, everything else is original.

AC: Is it true that most of the production on this album comes from Black Milk?
EL: Yea, most of the production is done by Black Milk, there’s a couple tracks done by my DJ who goes by the name Andreas or DJ Dez, and I got another one from T3 and another one was done by this dude named Demark Vessey. So I just wanted to give some new up and coming talent a chance to shine.

AC: What was working with Black Milk like and how did his musical ideas influence the album?
EL: To be perfectly honest with you, at the time, Black was working on his album (Tronic), so all I really did was take the Black Milk beats that were open, I took the best Black Milk beats I could find and put it all together and made the record. He would come in from time to time and put his ear on it, tell me what he thought I should keep, let me know how he should approach the record, change the drums or something. But working with Black is always an honor because we appreciate each other’s craft and we recognize the real and are coming together for one common cause, to breathe life into the game, so it’s always cool working with Black.

AC: What I like a lot about this album is that there’s a lot of variety on it in terms of the sound. You have harder hitting songs like “D.E.M.O.N.S.” and “Hands Up” and then you have more playful songs like “Guessing Game” and “Colors,” to the two really laid back ones that I’m enjoying the most, “Transitional Joint” and “Save Ya.” What are your favorite cuts and can you talk about your lyric writing process and how you incorporated all those different styles?
EL: Some of my favorite songs on The Preface. One being D.E.M.O.N.S. I was actually in Cali when I thought about this, I thought, “it’d be crazy if I broke the world down to acronyms and just made the D the E the M the O and the N mean something different throughout the whole verse not missing a beat,” so I was proud of myself when I did that one. Another record is the “Guessing Game.” For one, I’ve never heard anybody even attempt to do a concept like that. That came to mind when I was rapping in the backseat of this van. Me, Fat Kat and T3 were on tour and it just popped in my head like one of the lines I have on this song called “Fire,” where I was saying “technology,” and just the way that I played with the word “tech” and “nology” made me come up with the idea like what if I did this with words and tricked everybody into thinking I was going to say one thing and then I didn’t? So that’s how that concept came about and I’m glad I put that on the album.

Songs like “Talking in My Sleep,” I’m proud to say that’s a visual song even though it’s something made up, that’s something I imagined and put to paper so people could visualize it. “Save Ya,” “Transitional,” “Hands Up,” my writing process just varies. There’s times where I may write stuff down, but that’s rare. If it’s a deep concept and I’m trying to get real visual with you, so it plays in your mind like a movie, sometimes I write those down but other than that, all my rhymes are stored inside my memory bank, and I may write it in my mind before I go to the studio, or I might write it in the studio to a beat or scat a bit in the booth, so there’s so many different ways I approach writing.

AC: Going to broader industry questions, you worked extensively in mix tapes before you released this album. What do you think of the current state of the music industry and where do you see it going?
EL: I see the music industry being on the downlow tip. I see people buying records from the internet. I see the internet as the new streets. I remember back in the day being in New York and seeing promotional vans and people just stopping on the side of the street and opening up the back doors with music banging from the person they were promoting, while a street team was out in front of the van slinging fliers and giving singles away. I can recall when Eminem, before he put out his first record, he had that song “I Just Don’t Give a Fuck,” and his promotional tour was passing VHS tapes with the video on there out in the club. But now it ain’t like that anymore. The internet is so big that people are promoting what they need to promote on the internet. I just see music as being on the downlow where it’s sad to say that you see Tower Records folding here, a Virgin Records closing there and music stores closing in general. But I see music sales going straight to the internet.

AC: You were talking earlier about two different generations in terms of hip-hop in Detroit, but overall in hip-hop, how do you view the genre as changing, and do you view these as positive or negative changes?
EL: I see the genre changing in that rock groups trying to incorporate rap and rap groups are trying to incorporate rock. And to me that’s not a bad thing, because it’s all about evolving and changing. I’m eclectic. I like Bon Jovi, I like Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, so I’m all for hip-hop changing and flipping, as long as the music sounds good, I don’t have a problem with it.

AC
: Following The Preface here, do you see yourself working on some more solo stuff or going back to collaborations for the next part of your career?
EL: Well I’ve got a mixtape coming out in December, I like to give a shout out to one of the illest rappers who’s still breathing right now, Nasir. I’ve got a record where I’m giving tribute. I actually got the idea from my boy DJ House Shoes and the name of the mixtape is Elmatic and it’s a tribute to the classic album Illmatic that Nas put out so in a way it’s me giving my own personal hip-hop honor to him, so I’m getting that mixtape ready, hopefully it should be ready in December. I’m working with Fat Kat on his new record, I’ll be on like 80% of that record. I’m also working with T3, we’re doing a mixtape for DJ Who Kid right now but at the same time me and Royce are getting our thoughts together for our collaboration, but at the same time I’m still planning on putting out an album after the mixtape called The Feed and that’s going to be bigger and better than The Preface.
AC: You’re a busy man.
EL: It’s about that time. We’re living in a whole different era right now where we need to be in peoples’ faces and we gotta work overtime. But to me it doesn’t even feel like work cause I love to do what I do, but yea you have to stay busy if you want to stay relevant.

AC: What has your career in hip-hop taught you about life and what has life helped you learn to enhance your hip-hop?
EL: What hip-hop taught me was just to go hard at everything I do. Taake it to the next level with everything I do in my life. And my life influenced my hip-hop because everytime I pick up the pen I write about something that’s happening in the street or happening in my life, personal things, my wants, my fears, so it’s always influencing me in terms of what I write in my verses and the concepts that I think about. So you can’t help but let it influence you like that because you live in it everyday and if you rap about it from the heart it’s gonna automatically come off that way.

AC: A lot of bands outside of hip-hop, most notably Radiohead, have started letting fans remix their songs on the internet. Do you view that as a positive form of interaction with fans, and would you let your fans remix your cuts?
EL: There’s been a couple of times when I got my stuff remixed. This is what happened. My record came out and somebody took one of my songs and put their verse at the end of the song, then put that version in with the album and had it where people could download it. So when certain people downloaded the record, the version with that person rapping on my record is the version they got, so they’re thinking that’s what the record sounded like. I don’t agree with that, but as far as people wanting to put their spin on it or be heard or whatever, it’s all fun, it’s all good, I’m not mad at it, go for theirs is what I say.

AC: To get a little political with you, we’re in a massively important election. Have you been following it and do you have any thoughts about what direction our country needs to head in?
EL: I’ve been following it a little bit. It’s time for a change, my people here in the D that aren’t into this rap game and work regular jobs, there’s cats getting laid off, can’t find jobs here. So that needs to change. The economy as a whole, I mean gas is starting to look a little better, but man, it was even better than this at one point and we’re just happy it’s at this level now, but it was worse only a few weeks ago, maybe a month ago. The economy as a whole needs to have a makeover and I just feel it’s time for that change, and like you say man, this is a real important election and everyone needs to voice their opinion and vote, and I’m voting for Obama, and that’s just how it is.

What I’m Hearing, Vol. 7

Did you miss last month’s tasty audio? Never fear, click here.

October’s iPod update is a fantastic affair featuring 79 songs. It had a few older singles that I was recently turned on to, as well as some excellent new music from various genres. As we head towards the end of the year, keep your ears on for some of the huge and blockbuster album that are sure to be coming at us as the holidays approach.

Apollo Sunshine, Shall Noise Upon: This is the 3rd offering from Apollo Sunshine, a northeast trio that has made a habit of infusing new indie and rock music with retro themes. The light melodies and easy vocals go hand in hand with melodic and uplifting musical flourishes. Steely guitar in places, harmonized singing, use of woodwinds and basic drum beats can range in style here from unapologetic roadhouse rock songs (“Brotherhood of Death”) to melancholy drifters that border on an old Western soundtrack (“Fog and Shadow.”) But regardless of the style they employ, from top to bottom Apollo Sunshine has crafted an album that feels right on all levels. Don’t Sleep On: “The Funky Chamberlain (Who Begot Who),” “Money,” and “The Mermaid Angeline” which should find its way to a Wes Anderson film at some point.

Black Milk, Tronic: Rather than repeat anything about this album here, click this link for the album review.

Devin the Dude, Landing Gear: On his 5th album, Devin the Dude takes his recognizable laid back flow and infuses his beats with a bit more pop and energy than in previous outings. Never one to take himself too seriously, though, Devin slides through these tracks with ease, his voice consistently feeling like warm tea to a sore throat. Where other rappers yell, the Dude whispers, and where others bark, he glides. The best parts of this album are where DD doesn’t stray too far from this ideal, keeping mellow beats and silky smooth vocals on tracks you can kick your feet up to. His lyrics are simple and easy to understand, and the delivery makes you feel like DD is rapping right in your living room. Don’t Sleep On: “I Can’t Make it Home,” “Highway,” and “I Need a Song.”

Jake One, White Van Music: On his first solo album, Jake One takes hip-hop by the ears and shakes it around. The beats here are varied and layered, showing fantastic production ranging from deep bass rider tracks to spaced out 90s gangsta rap cuts. Some focus on pleasant vocal samples while others rely on heavy hitting beats. The strongest point of this album is that it never falls too far into one hip-hop genre over another… Jake One uses them all to great effect. Joined by a crew of well known rappers (Busta Rhymes, Black Milk, M.O.P., Brother Ali, Little Brother, Posdnuos, MF Doom, Casual, eLZhi, Pharoahe Monch, Kardinal Offishall, Royce da 5’9″ and Keak da Sneak) Jake One makes his debut album a memorable one that should be considered as one of the best complete hip-hop albums of the year. Don’t Sleep On: “Home,” “Soil Raps,” and “Oh Really.”

Doomtree, Doomtree: Click here for my interview with Doomtree. Doomtree seeks to answer the question, “What do you get when you mix 5 very different MCs with 4 very different DJs?” And it appears from their debut album that the answer is everything. On this lengthy and diverse 21 track freshman album, this group out of Minnesota spans the genre of hip-hop, never afraid to bring in something different or new. While some tracks stick to the straight ahead style, others incorporate sounds of rock or jazz. With the various artists on the mic, you can often forget that you’re still listening to the same album. If there’s one drawback to the diversity here it’s that there is never one coherent image or sound that defines the group, although, one would think from the presentation that that’s exactly how Doomtree likes it. Be on the lookout for solo albums from this collective in the months to come. Don’t Sleep On: “Sadie Hawkins,” “Gameshow Host,” and “Kid Gloves.”

Madlib, WLIBAM – King of the Wigflip: Madlib’s influence in hip-hop over the past decade has been pronounced. Through collaborations with J Dilla, Mos Def and De La Soul among others, Madlib has created a body of work that touches just about every corner of the hip-hop genre. Never afraid to branch out with a new sound, Madlib seems to draw his best work from never settling into one role, and never fearing to tackle all aspects of the production process, from DJing to MCing. This album is the latest in the “Beat Generation Series” from Barely Breaking Even Records which has previously seen incarnations under the hands of J Dilla, Marley Marl, DJ Jazzy Jeff, will.I.am and King Britt, among others. While I honestly couldn’t get into the entirety of this album, there are a few tracks that demonstrate that whether you like everything he does or not, Madlib remains on top of his game and respected by his peers. Don’t Sleep On: “The Thang-Thang,” “Blow the Horns on ‘Em,” and Go!”

Singles: These songs didn’t get full write-ups as part of an artist or album, but they are excellent singles nonetheless. “Electric Feel” by MGMT, “Please Believe” by Longshot and “Paper Planes (DFA Remix)” by MIA.

Black Milk – Tronic Review

While traditional record labels and the overall state of radio hip-hop is in a sad state of decline, there continue to be a rash of good underground coming from the Midwest. A little while back we caught up with Minnesota’s DoomTree, and last month I spoke about the stellar album from Detroit’s eLZhi. eLZhi’s The Preface, with a large amount of production provided by Black Milk has been on repeat on my iPod for a while, so I was excited to hear word of Black Milk‘s solo effort, Tronic, hitting shelves tomorrow. But you don’t have to wait til then to read about it… we got a sneak peak this weekend.

Black Milk’s work displays a feel for both the progressively electronic side of hip-hop, as well as nods to the nostalgic feel of using old samples. Both work to great effect on Tronic, and while some cuts are much stronger than others, the album’s diversity of sound and style provide something for any hip-hop listener. On “Long Story Short,” the album opens with a simple piano rift that is then covered up by a pulsing beat and heavy melody pieces to form the backdrop of Milk’s rhyme describing his ascension in hip-hop. As the song ends, horns come in to help transition the piece back to the easy piano of the beginning, almost as if he doesn’t want you to forget that he appreciates both the gentle and heavy-hitting aspects of the genre. This gives way to “Bounce,” a darker song using heavy synths that sound like they could have come out of the Blade Runner soundtrack. Black Milk’s style lyrically on this song uses quick starts and stops, breaking his lines up and sometimes rearranging words to emphasize points. How he feels he fits in is obvious when, lamenting the current state of hip-hop he states, “that’s when I clock in as an option when you need a breath of fresh oxygen.”

“Give the Drummer Sum” mixes bass and snare drums with some traditional horn pieces and a sped up sample with “it makes no sense.” While the song is solid, it exhibits one of Milk’s traits in that at times he seems to try to do a little too much. The heavy rapping and funky drums fit nicely over the melody of the song, but the sample seems like one piece too many. This moves into “Without You,” a fantastic inversion of the usual hip-hop love song. Here, rather than taking the time to rap about a special woman in his life, he takes the opposite tact by rapping about how much better he is on his own. What’s special about this song is that he puts it over a playful and bouncy track, helping this break-up song to avoid any bitterness or darkness so commonly associated with them. It’s a welcome twist to a common theme.

“Hold It Down” comes next and rips with a beat and synth combo that sounds like it could have come out of an ’80s pop song like “Tainted Love.” But just when you think it might be a slow rehash, Milk uses the head nodding beat to rap quickly, ripping through the song in a way that feels like lightening on wheels, while still mixing in a stop and start that keeps it fresh. This is followed by one of the strongest tracks on the album, “Losing Out” with Royce da 5’9″. The strength of this album comes not just in the speed of the verses, but in the successful mixture of the futuristic sound some of the songs aspire more to while interspersing a repetitive and backbone providing sample. Unlike the repetition on “Give the Drummer Sum,” which wears thin by the end of the track, the use of the sample here as catalyst for the verses keeps the entire cut moving.

Heavy bass synth rules the DJ Dez featured track “Overdose,” and successfully conveys the feeling of an overbearing and heavy runaway train. But not one to become too bogged down in one style, or leave the listener too overwhelmed, this is followed by the easy flow and lightly vocally backed “Reppin for You,” which includes another fantastic line regarding the state of the industry when he spits, “This dude asked me/, ‘what’s the answer to this hip-hop cancer/, I’m so hungry for real shit I feel like I’m fasting,'” and at times it feels like Black Milk, in his desires to be both progressive and retro, is starving to provide something real on multiple fronts. “The Matrix” is the cameo cut on the album, with appearances from Pharoahe Monch, Sean Price and DJ Premier and is followed nicely with the hi-fi sounding “Try.”

One of the most solid aspects of this album is that even in the heaviest rapping moments, Black Milk never wants the listener to forget how musically focused he is. Numerous songs have extended musical portions and the instrumental “Tronic Summer” exhibits this beautifully, taking a relaxed beat and infusing it with synths and keys for an easy driving song. Throughout the album, Black Milk does a good job of mixing up his style and production. At points futuristic and at others retro, Tronic displays a musically and lyrically diverse piece and while a few tracks hit a bit too hard for my liking, the overall feel of the album is sure to please anyone looking for some solid new hip-hop.


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